Mallet back to face his former team

One of South African rugby’s most successful coaches has returned home to take on the team he coached to 17 consecutive Test wins.

Nick Mallett, the former coach of the Springboks from 1997 to 2000, is now in charge of the Italy side that will play a one-off Test against the world champions at Newlands, Cape Town—his home town—on Saturday.

It is the first time a former national coach of the Springboks will lead a side against his former team. Mallett is also a former Springbok, having represented the national rugby team in 1984.

While Mallett won 17 Tests in a row at one stage of his coaching career with the Boks and led the side to the Tri-Nations trophy in 1998, he is unlikely to have the same kind of success with the whipping boys of the Six Nations competition.

Italy have performed competently in the northern hemisphere competition since joining the other five big nations, but they have failed to make the step up to challenge for any honours, in spite of causing the occasional upset.

Having been involved in rugby for most of his life, particularly in South Africa and France, Mallett knows he is up against the odds against the Springboks. And not even a record of winning 27 of the 38 Tests he was in charge of for the Boks will be enough to see him lead Italy to a victory at the weekend.

“It’s a huge hurdle in front of us this weekend,” said Mallett on Monday after arriving with a depleted and injury-hit Italy squad.

“Besides the injuries and us missing several key players, we’ve battled to even have a camp before this trip. It’s something the International Rugby Board has to look at. It’s again the matter of club versus country. It’s a nightmare.”

A number of Italy’s best players have been unable to get releases from their clubs in England and France, where most of Italy’s top players are in action.

Mallett, who before taking on the Italy job, was director of rugby at Western Province where Jean de Villiers, Schalk Burger, Ricky Januarie and Luke Watson ply their trade, says he is under no illusions of what the Boks will bring to the clash on Saturday.

“The Boks have always been a physically imposing team, but they’ve added some nice skills to their game,” he said. “They are obviously aggressive in the contact situations and they’re prepared to throw the ball around a bit.”

The new Italy coach will be hoping his players do not suffer the same consequences as the team that lost to the Boks 101-0 in 1999, when Mallett was coach.

He may know Newlands stadium like the back of his hand, as well as a number of the players who he’ll be up against at the weekend, but after South Africa’s comfortable 2-0 series win against Six Nations champions Wales, Mallett will no doubt be looking at the tour as an opportunity for his players to learn rather than actually compete.—Sapa-AFP

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