Former Canada coach Kieran Crowley is keeping a close eye on the Rugby World Cup, especially Thursday when the Canadians open play against Italy in Fukuoka City.
Crowley, now coach of Italian club side Benetton Rugby, has 15 players with Italy at the tournament. Seven will start against Canada with four more on the bench. Ten Benetton players started in Italy’s 47-22 win over Namibia on Sunday with three more on the Italian bench.
The former All-Black also has plenty of ties to Canada, having coached the Canadian men at the 2011 and ‘15 World Cups. A son and daughter still call Canada home.
But Crowley, who resigned as Canada coach in January 2016 after nearly eight years on the job, will be rooting for Italy on Thursday.
“When Italy plays Canada, I think my allegiance will probably lie with the boys I’m coaching,” Crowley said from Benetton’s home base of Treviso. “But then when Canada plays New Zealand (on Oct. 2), I coached a lot of those boys as well so I’ll certainly be going for the underdog in that one.”
New Zealand returned to the top of the world rankings after its 23-13 World Cup win over South Africa, which dropped one place to fifth. Canada is ranked 22nd, compared to No. 14 for Italy.
Crowley inherited a Canadian team ranked 15th when he was appointed coach in March 2008. The squad was 19th when he departed for Italy.
He believes the gap between Tier 2 nations like Canada and the sport’s elite teams continues to widen.
“The first round of games (at the World Cup) have been reasonably close but yeah I do think the gap is growing,” he said. “I mean even just coming here to Italy, the structures they have in place in these Tier 1 countries, the professional leagues they have, which the Tier 2 countries don’t have. I think the gap is getting bigger.”
Optimistic about the Italian national team, Crowley pays little attention to the world rankings. As a member of the Six Nations, Italy regularly plays top-echelon teams like second-ranked Ireland, No. 3 England, No. 4 Wales, No. 7 France and No. 8 Scotland.
He sees positives in Italy, with clubs reaching abroad to bring in coaching talent. Italian youth sides have also fared well in recent years, he notes. Now the trick is to develop that talent.
Crowley was brought in to turn Benetton around. The team is owned by the Benetton Group fashion company, which is headquartered in Treviso.
“When I first came here, the sporting director said to me he wanted to see a change of attitude in the players, a change in their professionalism, a change in the way they played the game etc.,” said Crowley.
“They were very clear that they weren’t expecting championships or anything like that, because they were bottom of the table. They wanted to see it slowly get up the table and then maybe in my fourth year sort of be competing for the playoffs. We’re probably a little bit ahead of where he envisaged. But that’s great. But with that now comes expectations, I suppose.”
Benetton was 0-11-0 and sitting last in the Guinness Pro14, which features teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales, when Crowley came on board. The club finished the 2015-16 campaign at 3-19-0 but improved to 5-17-0 the next season and 11-10-0 the year after.
Benetton finished the 2018-19 campaign with an 11-8-2 record, becoming the first Italian team to make the Guinness Pro14 playoffs. In May, Crowley was voted the league’s coach of the year by his peers.
A depleted Benetton opens the 2019-20 season Saturday when it hosts defending champion Leinster, which has supplied the Irish World Cup team with 14 players.
Crowley played 35 games, including 19 test matches, for the All Blacks between 1983 and ‘91 and saw action in both the 1987 and ‘91 World Cups. New Zealand won the tournament in 1987.
He quit the Canada coaching job just two weeks after agreeing to a two-year contract extension in the wake of a mixed report from a Rugby Canada’s review following the 2015 tournament when Canada lost all four matches.
Still Crowley says he has good memories of his time in Canada.
“Definitely. There are some great people in Canada,” he said. “There’s people that give it their best. They do what they consider is best for the sport. We’ve got some great friends in Canada.”
Crowley, 56, is now enjoying life in Treviso, a city of some 80,000 located a 20-minute train ride from Venice.
“You have the food and Prosecco wine. The Italian lifestyle is laid-back and they enjoy those sort of things,” he said. “They’re passionate about their sport.”