By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - As Italy trudged off the pitch on the final day of the Six Nations, the critics sharpened their knives, preparing to strike another blow into the heart of Italian rugby.
Yet the doom-mongers had ignored green shoots of recovery on the peninsula, most notably the remarkable improvement of club side Benetton, who made history last weekend by becoming the first Italian team to reach the Pro14 playoffs.
Their captain Dean Budd insists that the Peroni is on ice for now as the Treviso-based club, who have lofty ambitions, prepare for a trip to Munster for Saturday’s quarter-final.
"One of our goals at the start of the season was to change people’s perspectives and be the pride of Italian rugby," Budd told Reuters.
"That was something we always talked about. I hope this is a positive step in the right direction."
Budd, a native New Zealander, arrived in Treviso in 2012 and has represented Italy 20 times since qualifying through residency to make his debut in June 2017.
The 32-year-old lock started four of the Azzurri’s Six Nations matches this year, when they suffered a 22nd consecutive defeat in the competition, collecting a fifth wooden spoon in six years.
He is hopeful that the success of a Benetton side boasting the bulk of the national squad will be felt at international level.
"A sour point we’ve always had in Italy is that we feel we get the rough end of it when it comes to refereeing, because everyone’s used to seeing us lose,” he said.
"If a 50/50 goes against us, there’s a sense that it doesn’t really change much. Hopefully this can be the beginning of a change in perspectives.
"I think it’s all confidence-based with us players here in Italy. If boys can really start to believe that we’re as good as the rest, then I think that will transfer over to the Italian team."
Budd also hopes that his team’s achievement of finishing third in Conference B, securing not only a playoff spot but a place in next season’s Champions Cup, will lead to kinder media coverage.
“The coaching staff tell us to avoid the press like the plague, because it does nothing for our confidence reading week in week out that whoever is coming is going to take five points,” he said.
“That’s difficult as a player, to be beaten from the outside and then on the field.
“I think soon enough people will start to realise that Italy is a team that should be respected. But until we do that on the field that’s all just talk.”
Benetton finished bottom of the league as recently as 2016, but the arrival of former All Black Kieran Crowley as head coach that summer sparked a transformation.
Budd, now in his seventh season at the Stadio Monigo, has witnessed every step of their rollercoaster journey.
“I couldn’t’ tell you honestly what happened in the years before Kieran arrived but I think there was a lot of shit, to put it bluntly, going on behind the scenes, which didn’t help the team perform to the best of its ability and didn’t give the coaches the opportunity to be able to provide the best for the boys,” he said.
“There was a change and our director of sport became Antonio Pavanello, coming in with Kieran. There’s been a huge shift to objective-based goals. Not just dreaming about change, but actually making it happen.”
“A lot of players always had the ability but were never allowed to show their individual skill because if you made a mistake it probably meant you weren’t playing the next week,” he continued.
“But with Kieran it’s all skill-based, you can see the handling of the boys has doubled. Our skills, our fitness is so much better and that’s allowed us to play this style of rugby.”
A mammoth task lies in store this weekend when Benetton face two-times European champions Munster for a place in the semi-finals.
“We can’t hide away from the fact that we’re coming up against one of the best teams in European history,” Budd said.
“Finals rugby is something where you never know what can happen. If you look at Connacht v Leinster three years ago (when Connacht won the Pro12 final), we can use that game as inspiration a real David versus Goliath situation. Whoever shows up on the day will take it home.”
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Davis)