Results may be proving hard to come by but Aironi Rugby are definitely on the way up.
A stunning Heineken Cup triumph over last year’s beaten finalists Biarritz Olympique at the back end of last year has shown just what the debutants can achieve and head coach Rowland Phillips is convinced his side will continue to improve.
The Italians are yet to record a win in their first-ever Magners League season but a narrow defeat at Cardiff Blues in their most-recent league fixture is yet more proof that the elusive victory is edging ever nearer.
That’s good news for Aironi and for Italian Rugby in general.
"I think we kicked on against the Blues," said Phillips, a former Wales flanker who took over the reigns in northern Italy last November.
"The emotions are difficult. I’m disappointed we didn’t get anything out of that game – that’s a huge disappointment – but I’m pleased that we’re now earning our stripes in this league.
"We’re confident every time we play; we’re confident about our preparation and we go into games to play to win. Having said that, as our results up to now show, we haven’t had a win and we haven’t competed away from home very well.
"As a minimum level, to be a competitive team and to be dominating field position for big periods and, up until the last kick of the game, have an opportunity to win it against the Blues, I’m happy.
"It was a big step forward for us as a group. To come away from home to a very big club like Cardiff Blues and leave with a bit more self belief is definitely positive."
Aironi are settling into life in the Magners League
Aironi have faced two major difficulties in their debut campaign, both of which Phillips’ believes they are slowly overcoming.
The first stems from the fact that Aironi are an entirely new franchise. Only formed this summer as an amalgamation of eight clubs across two regions, ‘The Herons’ were already at a major disadvantage when it came to pre-season training.
Whereas their Magners League rivals were busy building on last season by integrating a few new signings, Aironi were starting from scratch.
Instead of building on an expanding gameplan or strengthening their setpiece, Aironi needed to build a team ethos and create an identity before anything else would fall into place.
"Everybody knows the difficulties of bring so many players together from so many different clubs," added a confident but realistic Phillips who seems keen for Aironi to start developing their repertoire now that strong foundations are being laid.
"I can just manage our own expectations as players and as a team…and I certainly think we’re certainly starting to develop our identity.
"At the start of the competition, we were still trying to find our game.
"You go back to Warren Gatland when he first came to Wales and he picked most of the Ospreys team to play England, purely on the back of a defensive structure. To get your defence right always gives you an opportunity to compete. If you’re not conceding too many points and you can pick up a few, then you’ve got opportunities to win games. We’re certainly building confidence in our defence.
"Our setpiece is good. I just think we need to show a little bit more composure. You don’t see a lot of width in our game at the moment but that’s something that we’re trying to build."
Aironi are developing a strong identity on and off the field
Throw in the fact that the vast majority of Aironi’s players were making the step up from the Italian Super 10 to a far more intense tournament in the Mganers League and it’s hardly surprising that it’s taken the newcomers a while to find their feet.
"All the other teams in this Magners League competition are conditioned to have a week’s preparation, play a high-intensity game, another week’s preparation, another high-intensity game, and it’s relentless. We’ve had to get the players mentally prepared for that process.
"That’s been one of the key things for us – to make them realise how demanding this Magners League competition is.
"You can never drop off, go to ground zero and try and build yourself back up for the weekend. It’s been a good challenge for the players and it’s been a good challenge for me as a coach as well.
"As a staff, we can feel pleased and proud because we’ve got a group of players who want to learn and want to improve. If we give them the environment to grow, then we’re going to have that enthusiasm regardless of results.
"They’re gaining and growing as people as well as players. Everybody knows how big this competition is.
"For Aironi as a club, and for the Italian national team, this will be of huge benefit to them in the long-term."