Nick Mallett hails Italy's improvement at RWC
Updated: September 30, 2011, 00:25
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DUNEDIN, New Zealand(AP) The scale of Nick Mallett's achievements with Italy is clear even before Sunday's crucial Rugby World Cup match against Ireland.
Such is the improvement overseen by the former South Africa coach in his four years in charge that the players will be crushed by disappointment if they fail to win in Dunedin and miss out on the quarterfinals.
Mallett says the days of his players being content to lose after a competitive performance are long gone, with Six Nations wins over France and Scotland helping to change that perspective.
Mallett will step down after the World Cup to be replaced by Jacques Brunel, so Sunday's match at Otago Stadium will be his last if Italy loses.
"Whatever happens, I'm going to be saying goodbye,'' Mallett said Friday. "But this isn't about my last match or my second last match. It's much more about the development of the side and how this side has turned itself into a team that is respected by every other side in the world.
"We've completely turned around the way other teams think about Italy. They used to be confident enough to put their B team in against us and now no one does that against Italy any more.''
Certainly not Ireland, which has picked a full-strength lineup.
Mallett's record of nine wins from 41 internationals does not tell the full story of Italy's improvement under his guidance. Eleven of those games were against the Tri-Nations giants of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, with another 20 in the highly competitive Six Nations.
"Italy lost 76-14 to New Zealand in the last World Cup,'' Mallett said. "The last time we played them in New Zealand we conceded three tries and lost 27-6 with a great performance. We then played them in Milan - and they're still a great side, if not the best side in the world - where we lost 20-6 and probably should have had a penalty try.''
Ireland knows about Italy's improvement as much as any side. While the Irish are on a 15-game winning run against Italy, they only won this year's Six Nations encounter 13-11 through a late dropped goal from Ronan O'Gara.
"This side has improved tremendously and is unrecognizable from the team I took over four years ago,'' Mallett said. "History will tell only once you've been away for a while whether you've been a successful coach or not, but in terms of the relationship I have with the team and the staff, it's been a great four years.
"And I've enjoyed the last two years probably as much as I've enjoyed coaching any team.''
That's quite something from a man who guided South Africa to within a late dropped goal of the 1999 World Cup final and won two French championships with Stade Francais.
The 54-year-old English-born South African puts that satisfaction - and Italy's improvement - down to the mental resilience he has managed to foster in a squad already containing the talents of No. 8 Sergio Parisse and prop Martin Castrogiovanni.
"They are not satisfied just to compete,'' Mallett said. "They really would like to beat their Six Nations counterparts.''