Rugby: Will it be an Italian renaissance for exiles?

AS TWO Italian teams prepare to enter Magners League rugby next season, hopes are rising that exiled Scots might find a worthwhile platform to exhibit abilities that could take them all the way into coach Andy Robinson's resurgent international set-up.

Currently there are a sprinkling of Scots figuring in the Azurri's Super 10 competition and, while the Benetton Treviso club are guaranteed a Celtic place in their own right, the composite Aironi team based on the Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna regions will have licence to include foreigners alongside those native players the scheme is designed to assist. Treviso will be based at Stadio Comunale di Monigo while Aironi will play at Stadio Luigi Zaffanella in Viadana for what will be the Celtic League's tenth season.

When he announced the competition's expansion to 12 teams, Celtic League director David Jordan said: "It is anticipated that the Italian super clubs will be largely made up of Italian internationals of full, A and under-20 levels, with a sprinkling of top-class overseas players set to provide further extra strength and spice to the tournament."

According to one ex-Scottish internationalist with recent coaching experience at the Petrarca club there are a number of his fellow countrymen making an impact in Italy.

George Graham, now coach at Gala, said: "There are still a lot of issues to be resolved regarding how Magners League involvement for two teams will impact on the rest of Italian rugby. However, I was very impressed by two Scots in particular, Garry Law (Viadana) and Barry Irving (Parma), during my time out there." Law (ex-Border Reivers) and Irving (ex-Glasgow) both represented Scotland A in the back line before deciding their future lay abroad.

But, as Graham says, Scotland's resources are too limited to be able to discard anyone playing in a top league and if their domestic environment were to be upgraded then notice is bound to be taken.

Another who could catch the eye is former Scotland age-group cap Andrew Skeen who left Watsonians last season after failing to gain a pro contract from Murrayfield, although in his case a move north from Rome to where the new team is based might be necessary.

Skeen, who has started Roma's last four matches at stand off and feels much improved as a player, says: "My own contract expires at the end of the season and my options are open, while everything is up in the air for the Italian scene generally outwith the Magner's League.

"Roma Rugby's president has announced an overall budget cut from 1.6 million euros to 500,000 euros and the fear is that sponsors will all be attracted towards two teams.

"It is certainly the case, though, that Garry and Barry are playing well and well placed in the north to take advantage of any opportunity with Aironi."

Graham said: "Garry Law and Barry Irving would be front runners for a place in the Aironi team so far as exiled Scots are concerned. Barry has a massive kick and likes to attack with ball in hand and, as a stand-off, he could exploit the fact there isn't a lot of depth in that position back home." Graham coached at Reivers when Law, a full back or centre, was there and he added: "Garry has always been a talented player and, like Barry Irving, would get good reports on a regular basis out in Italy. I know when I was assisting the Scotland forwards that head coach Frank Hadden was always keeping an eye out for players proving themselves abroad and I can't imagine it will be any different nowadays."

One player Edinburgh can expect to renew acquaintance with next season is their former Argentinian international prop Augusto Allori, who is at Treviso although Graham expects it will take the Italians a while to settle into the Celtic League.

"For the first season or two I expect the Italian teams to be whipping boys but then they'll find their feet.

"What is going to be especially interesting concerns what happens to the teams outwith the Magners League. Italian club rugby is heavily driven by sponsorships and companies might pull out if they regard the domestic competition as devalued. The question arises about what direction other clubs like Calvisano will go in and it surprises me that the composite team is being based in the north rather than Rome.

"There's only five months until an Italian side plays its first Magners League match and that is a relatively short time for them to pull things together but I'm sure structures are in place."