Ulster Rugby v Benetton Rugby


This evening the visitors to Kingspan Stadium might once have been less than optimistic about the prospect of returning home with the spoils.

But Benetton Rugby, or Treviso, is part of what appears to be a genuine resurgence at the top of the game in Italy and, with Zebre, the club has been experiencing one of its most successful phases in the professional game. While it’s too early to say convincingly that Italian rugby is finally becoming a consistently competitive product, there are more than just tentative signs that at club and national level the sport is producing more quality, and quantity, in terms of players. Though it always has relied on recruitment from afar, today more of these ‘foreign’ players are properly qualified to play for the country and, more important, the numbers of indigenous Italians proving their mettle is palpably growing. Benetton has already made quite an impression in the PRO14, with thumping wins over Southern Kings and Ospreys at the Stadio Monigo, and then an impressive victory at Edinburgh, helping the side to a healthy position In Conference B after eight rounds of games. And perhaps, as Conor O’Shea continues to have ambitious plans for the sport in Italy – and the national side in particular – the real measure of the club’s improvement and of its telling consistency is the fact that no fewer than 15 of its players are on international squad duty for the Autumn internationals. In all departments Benetton provides O’Shea with good choices, but it is in the key area of forward battle that the club is excelling. No fewer than five of the Italian ‘eight’ helped pave the way to victory over Fiji two weeks ago, and then ran Argentina so close last Saturday. Marco Fuser and Dean Budd is a second-row combination which can more than hold its own in the PRO14, while team-mates Frederico Ruzza and and Marco Lazzaroni are rated the next best pairing at lock and have been regulars in the international squad. Braam Steyn is an all-action, physical open-side, and Francesco Minto is a top-class blindside flanker who has subverted the attacking threats

of many sides, not least Ulster on some of its not entirely convincing league trips to Treviso. The hardened Luca Bigi is the country’s No.1 choice at hooker, and Jayden Hayward is now a fixture in O’Shea’s backline, and that might lead Ulster fans to think that Benetton resources will be fatally diluted by international calls for tonight’s resumption in the PRO14. Certainly the visitors are hardly strengthened by the fact that ten of their number have been in the international matchday squads in the last fortnight, but it’s possible that free-running winger Angelo Esposito, tough-tackling centre Tomasso Benvenuti and one of the international scrum- halves - either Edoardo Gori or Tito Tebaldi, could be released from Italy’s preparations for the Test with South Africa tomorrow afternoon. Were that to happen Ulster could expect another hugely difficult evening dealing with a Benetton backline which is adventurous and clinical but has an intelligent defensive strategy which has always been at the core of teams coached by former All Black Kieran Crowley, lured to the north-east of Italy after a lengthy and successful stint in charge of Canada. Out-half Ian McKinley, originally from these parts, is likely to stay with the international panel as his fairytale return to the sport after losing an eye while a Leinster apprentice continues, and his leadership would be missed by any club, but in Marty Banks or Tomasso Allan there are options at ‘Ten’ which are experienced and gifted. Where Ulster, who’ll be without Rory Best and Iain Henderson, will hope to take the initiative is in the pack where Benetton’s success is reflected in the selection of no fewer than seven forwards in the international matchday squad of late. Can the visitors really survive the absence of quite so many players in the always critical area of any contest? Logic might presume to persuade the home supporters that Ulster will dominate in the setpiece, but recent history suggests that Italian club sides have rugged, stubborn reserves with a




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