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It's time for Zebre to change their stripes as Italians seek upturn in fortunes

Consistency is everything in the long haul of a league championship, and few teams have ever nailed it quite so well as Zebre.

Benetton Treviso have struggled to repel the full force of sides such as Glasgow in previous seasons. Picture: SNS Group/SRU
Benetton Treviso have struggled to repel the full force of sides such as Glasgow in previous seasons. Picture: SNS Group/SRU

In their four seasons of PRO12 rugby, two in their current guise and two in their previous incarnation as Aironi, the side from Emilia-Romagna have finished plum last every time. At least they can't complain about rugby's rollercoaster ride.

Yet after a 2012-13 campaign in which they ensured their lowly position through their noble refusal to win a single game, Zebre hit a few bumps in the road last time out as they claimed five victories. The first, and by far the most emotional, was away to Cardiff Blues last September, and they followed up that tumultuous achievement by beating Treviso, Cardiff (at home), Edinburgh and Ospreys. Had Treviso not scooped up a number of bonus points then Zebre would have finished as Italy's top team.

In a sporting culture where enmities simmer like blood feuds, these things matter rather more than in other countries, but Marco Bortolami, Zebre's legendary lock, knows enough about the rugby's bigger picture to know that domestic bragging rights will count for nothing at the season's end.

Hence his refusal to obsess about the prospects and performances of Treviso, 100 miles north-east of his side's Parma base, even in the changed context of a system of European qualification that will give a bonus to whichever team finishes higher in the Guinness PRO12.

"There is a lot of talk about that," says Bortolami, the most capped player in Italy rugby history, with 107 appearances to his name. "But it is really just two games in a season that we play against them, so it is not going to dictate where we finish in the league.

"Yes, there is a big rivalry and it is always good to think that you might be the best team in Italy, but all the other things - especially the European place - will depend more on how we do against the other teams throughout the season.

"We don't want to worry too much about how they play, who they play and whether they win or lose. We just have to do as good as we can and then see at the end of the season whether we are better than them."

Recent trajectories suggest they might well be. A number of pundits fancied Treviso to do something special last year, but the side from the Veneto, who had finished seventh the previous year, suffered a horrendous slump, dropping to 11th in the table. Dogged by off-field problems and uncertainties, and with their officials threatening to leave the championship. They reached their nadir in Swansea in February when they were humiliated 75-7 by Ospreys.

Treviso steadied their ship towards the end of the season, but by then a host of top players had already found other clubs to join. The summer clear-out has robbed them of Tobias Botes, Luke McLean, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Robert Barbieri and many other stalwarts of recent seasons.

"They now look particularly light in the front five, an area of traditional strength, and to make matters worse they have also said farewell to long serving coach Franco Smith, with former Zebre assistant Umberto Casellato coming in to replace him.

Treviso have cast their recruitment net wide, but Zebre have preferred to shop local. Overall, there is a more settled look to Zebre, although Bortolami, formerly of Narbonne and Gloucester, admits that life will still be a struggle for the Italian sides as they try to consolidate their places among Europe's elite.

"I had big expectations when I came back to Italy four years ago," the 34-year-old explains. "But the reality is that we still have a long way to go, although I think we're going in the right direction. We need to understand what we have done well over the past four years and what we should change to improve.

"We have to keep changing, keep improving, keep looking to get stronger.

"The opposition is getting tougher all the time, so you have to do the same. But I was very positive when I returned to Italy, and I'm still very positive.

"But it is not just a matter of time because you also have to put the work in to get better. You can't just wait for it to happen. We have to work better and change what we do to improve."

Bortolami is one of the last of that generation of great Italian forward warhorses who have helped to drag their country into the international rugby mainstream. His return to Zebre - or, rather, Aironi - was a major coup and it has been a long haul through lean times to establish the side as a force. Small wonder that the victory in Cardiff last year was such a momentous occasion for them all.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," he smiles. "Before the game I said to the players that it was a very special place and that every time I went there I had a special motivation and passion.

"It was something magical to get our first win there, such a historic city and a historic club. It was wonderful."

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