Patrick Blunt is 18 years old. After finishing college in England this year he moved back to Milan. He has followed Zebre ever since they came into existence but prior to that he was a keen Aironi fan. He also enjoys playing rugby as much as he enjoys watching it and currently plays with a "Serie C" rugby club in Milan.
After watching Zebre’s opening fixtures of the season I was left with mixed feelings about the new franchise. Pre-season, the friendly against Northampton Saints gave me a very promising impression on the new club however, after getting beaten convincingly in the opening fixture by Newport Gwent Dragons, my initial impressions where brought back down to earth. The franchise from Parma are currently bottom of the table having not won a single match. Their only point has come as a losing bonus point against a poor performing Glasgow Warriors.
Zebre have a selection of quality players including veteran Italian forwards Salvatore Perugini, Quintin Geldenhuys and Marco Bortolami. Zebre’s downfall therefore comes not from a lack of skilled players but from a lack of communication, teamwork and mindset, which proves to be a more influential factor in the modern game. In the RaboDirect PRO12, Zebre are facing teams with a star studded roster of players who work exceptionally well as a unit: teams such as Heineken Cup winners Leinster and last season’s champions Ospreys who play fast paced running rugby.
Zebre’s game is currently very forwards based which is classic expectation from an Italian team and many of their points scored in games have come from the hard working pack. A stand out forward in the opening fixtures of this season is former Currie Cup player Dries Van Schalkwyk who has made some excellent carries and put in some big tackles. However if Zebre really want to challenge their opponents in the competition they require a more rounded game with more input from their three quarters. Zebre have some great centres and wingers with the likes of team captain Gonzalo Garcia, Matteo Pratichetti, Giovanbattista Venditti and Sinoti Sinoti, plus newcomer from super rugby Daniel Halangahu; but these class acts are being stifled by the constant pick and drives from the forwards and the reluctance to take risks from the half backs.
I believe that the key to Zebre’s success from an attacking point of view is variety and possession, instead of keeping to the current method of kicking for territory. Defensively, ill discipline is Zebre’s greatest enemy as they find themselves being penalised far too often at the breakdown. This in turn usually results in opposing points, as displayed in the Ospreys game by excellent marksman Dan Biggar who put away numerous penalties.
As far as the future is concerned for Zebre, they can only improve from their below standard form displayed in the early season; the chance to start afresh also arises with the beginning of the Heineken Cup. With a great team of staff which includes experienced French coach Christian Gajan as director of rugby, and the legendary former Italian international Alessandro Troncon, Zebre are definitely on the right path for improvement.
Zebre are still a very new face on the European rugby scene. Therefore it is understandable that they might not function well as a team compared to some of the other clubs who have been competing for many years. As time goes on, the players’ belief in the team and in each other will develop and this in turn will help realise their full potential.
Biggest surprise? Connacht's surprising but well deserved 5 try win over Leinster.
Most valuable player this season? Either Ulster's Nick Williams or Edinburgh's try machine Tim Visser.
Overall season prediction for Zebre? As much as I hate to say it, I can't see them moving out of last place! However I can see them finally getting some victories or at least being a lot more challenging later in the season.
Other Predictions? Top try scorer – Tim Visser; Rhino Golden boot – Dan Biggar or Greig Laidlaw; Top points scorer – Paddy Jackson; Top try scoring forward – Robert Barbieri
Overall Winner? Ulster – excellent start to the season also in the Heineken Cup.