Friday, September 27, 2013

Cardiff Blue, but Zebre Earned Their Strips

Perspective is a strange creature. It can vary greatly from person to person, it's easy to lose sight of and can cloud judgement, especially when you lose it.

A lot of people lost perspective this weekend after Zebre picked up their first competitive win in their short history, beating the Blues and Cardiff Arms Park. As Zebre won the game some fans and journalists instantly lost perspective. The reaction at the final whistle were akin to the Blues being defeated by an 11 man Holyhead.

Some responses (and by no means do I mean all) from radio pundits and via Twitter bordered on arrogance. Talks of the Blues "being better than this" and the "eleven internationals" they had playing dragged on far beyond the echo of the referee's whistle and the singing of the Zebre fans on Westgate Street. 
People who at the start of the season told me their new signings had made them ready to compete, now bemoaned their recruitment policy. Sane, sensible Blues fans tried to talk them down from their soap boxes, but it was too late. Their perspective had left them, packed it's bags and flown to Parma.

The truth is the Blues haven't become an awful team. Missing quality in a few key positions? Maybe. Inexperienced? Definitely. Awful? Certainly not.

Zebre have become an increasingly good team though. Last season they came close to an elusive victory many times. Almost half their defeats reaped a losing bonus, not a bad show for a team formed just 3 months before the season began giving them little time for preparations or recruitment.

Signs of a brighter season this time around were evident even before a ball was even kicked. Shrewd signings coupled with new coaches meant the Italians entered the new season on the front foot. Indeed Andrea Cavinato has a history of creating the upset, he coached Rugby Parma to victory over Brive in Challenge Cup.
A Zebre victory looked on the cards earlier in this season. The boys in black and white led Munster at half time in Parma before a second half blitz from the Irishmen put paid to any talk of an upset. By the time the players trudged off at the Stadio XXV Aprile it was clear they were a bigger, better, strong animal than 12 months previous.

Of the new recruits, no signing will be more influential at Zebre (Or possibly the whole Pro 12) than Brendan Leonard. An experienced scrum half who proved his credentials at Super Rugby's Chiefs and at one time was challenging Piri Weepu for the All Blacks "9" jersey, he is the key to unlocking a talented backs division behind an experienced pack that contains the likes of Mauro Bergamasco, Quintin Geldenhuys and Marco Bortolami.

Leonard's direction and experience coupled with Luciano Orquera's flair and exuberance are the lynchpin of the team. To counter the Blues "11 internationals" the halfback pairing were themselves two of 9 internationally capped players in the Zebre starting XV with another 4 sat on the bench.
Andries van Schalkwyk and Dion Berryman aren't capped. Like Leonard however, they also have Super Rugby experience, all be it in differing degrees. Meanwhile, Samuela Vunisa looked set for big things in the South Hemisphere after being name Taranaki's most promising player two years. He choose to pursue professional rugby in Europe, but even at the tender age of 24, the Fijian looks more than capable in the back row.

Flying David Odiete's promise means it's more a case of when then if he will play for Italy. His try in the Welsh capital will only further enhance his campaign for an international call in the near future and Dario Chistolini cut his teeth at Gloucester and is already an 'Italian A' player.

With that kind of talent, only the foolish or the brave would bet against the Parna club taking another scalp or two this season.

And, with a slightly different perspective, it's easy to see that this has nothing to do with the decline of the Blues. This was all about Zebre, earning their stripes.

Johnny Cash - Stripes

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