When you meet ex-Italy assistant coach Neil Barnes in Six Nations rugby’s Netflix drama Full Contact, his bluntness scares the bejesus out of you.
“For F**k’s sake”, “hit that p***k” and “give the ball to Capu-whatever-his-name-is [Ange Capuozzo], he’s f*****g quick” were just some of the wholesome proverbs that the non-Italian speaking New Zealander utters.
But Barnes simply just cares a lot and, having left Italy for a return to provincial rugby at home in 2023, no longer has skin in the international game. He is authenticity personified.
Italy are the annual whipping boys of the Six Nations, finishing bottom 18 times since they joined the annual competition in 2000.
But everybody also loves them; they have one superstar player in Capuozzo, and a host of exciting prospects like Michele Lamaro and Tommaso Menoncello. They ooze class at few and far between points.
Not for camera
“When I was working with players with the cameras I was not putting on a show,” Barnes explains to City A.M.
“If you’re not authentic and genuine in what you’re doing and saying, the players will see through it. I just ignored the fact that the cameras were there as it probably shows.
“I know my language can be a little bit colourful at times, so I apologise for that. But I am who I am.
“I loved Italy. It was an awesome challenge and I’ve got to take my hat off to Kieran [Crowley, then head coach] because your job as a coach is to get your players to believe in what you’re doing.
“And what Italy had been doing in the past wasn’t working. They were trying to play a game which was based on percentage rugby that everyone else does. But you have to understand the limitations. They’ve only got two teams in the URC who, in the past, were right down at the bottom of it.
“You’re trying to pick a Test team out of that and you come up against bloody hardened players that have so much experience. So when you take all those things on board as part of the job, we actually went in there and convinced the players that we couldn’t just carry on doing the same as what had always been done and we wanted to change their mindset.”
Barnes speaks at length late at night due to the time difference between London and Taranaki on New Zealand’s north island. But his gripes with red tape and bureaucracy are repeated time and time again. In the eight-part documentary Barnes is visibly irritated by the removal of Crowley as head coach of the Azzurri – his fellow Kiwi now coaches in Japan.
He claims that his former colleague was not given enough time, and cites the karma that hit Australia in not backing their former coach Dave Rennie into the World Cup when they instead chose the maverick
“I have a bit of a bugbear in professional environments with some of the bosses that they don’t understand what it takes to get success,” Barnes adds. “Sometimes it takes two or three years to build something really solid and get the results you deserve.
“I’m so happy that assistant coaches Marius Goosen [defence], and Andrea Moretti [forwards] have been retained by the new regime because I’m pretty sure they’ll keep going with what we actually started, which hopefully will see them getting more successful.
“But my biggest issue is when you just haven’t got the depth of players with only two professional teams so once you lose a couple of front-line players you’re under the pump.
“I was frustrated for Kieran that they didn’t keep him there because that was a very, very young team and I’d like to think that the next crew coming through now are going to get some results.
“But it is what it is. Look at people like Rennie and Australia, it was just ridiculous what happened down there but they got what they deserved at the World Cup [out in the pool stages].”
Il Commissario Tecnico Kieran #Crowley lascerà la guida della Nazionale maschile dopo la Rugby World Cup 2023 ➡ https://t.co/rPcRJhqGnL#insieme #rugbypassioneitaliana pic.twitter.com/lt5jLTCpqI
— Italrugby (@Federugby) June 15, 2023
Six Nations psychology
Barnes often speaks about philosophy and mindset, insisting on its importance to any successful team.
And in Full Contact we saw how the likes of Seb Negri and Stephen Varney struggled with psychological pressures on the pitch, for various reasons.
But it is clear the current crop of passionate Azzurri players are developing that mindset as a group, and their three-point loss to England in round one of the Six Nations proved that. Albeit they followed that with a 36-0 loss to Ireland.
Over 120,000 tickets have been sold for their two home games this year. Entertaining sport is back in the land of the gladiators, and much of that is down to the foundations laid by Crowley and his right-hand man Barnes, who admits he does not have Netflix and relies on his current Taranaki players to tell him what has made the cut.
“We wanted to play a game that I think everyone would love to watch, Ireland and France are similar in a lot of ways,” the former dairy farmer says.
“The Italian crowd deserves to be entertained, the players deserve to be able to play a game where they can express themselves instead of just trying to bash or play kick tennis.
“That bores me. But following through on the philosophies I’ve learned and taught is what drives me now. And I am happy with that.”