Benetton can reflect on most successful Guinness PRO14 season in their history

Benetton Rugby are unlikely to forget their 2018-19 campaign in a hurry after they broke new ground in the Guinness PRO14.

They stole the spotlight by becoming the first Italian team to qualify for the Guinness PRO14 Final Series, the men from Treviso also coming close to making the semi-finals as they were edged out 15-13 by Munster on the road in Limerick.

Here, we break down an extraordinary season for the Italians.

Key strengths

Rome wasn’t built in a day – and neither was this Benetton team.

In three seasons at the helm, former All Black Kieran Crowley has slowly moulded a team in his image at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi and in 2018-19, they went further than any other Italian team had ventured before in the Guinness PRO14.

Crowley was honoured individually, becoming the first coach of an Italian side to win the Guinness PRO14 Coach of the Season award, beating off competition from Leo Cullen, who led Leinster to the title.

After picking up that gong, the 57-year-old recounted that sporting director Antonio Pavalleno asked him to build a ‘rugby culture’ – the fruits of that labour could only just be beginning to blossom.

Areas to improve

It isn’t disingenuous to assert that in order to scale new heights in the 2019-2020 season, Benetton must first ensure that they don’t allow complacency to creep in.

Having made history by reaching the Gunness PRO14 Final Series for the first time, a line has been drawn on that accomplishment and the Italians cannot afford to rest on their laurels.

Benetton had the second-lowest accuracy from the kicking tee last term (68.8 per cent) and missed the posts more than anyone else, so improvements could be made with the boot – and marginal gains could make an almighty difference in tighter games.

Star moment

As straightforward a selection as there ever was – Benetton’s class of 2019 set a new benchmark by reaching the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals.

Italy’s very first representatives in the end-of-season shake-up, their qualification was fittingly secured with a 25-11 victory at compatriots Zebre in Parma.

Luca Morisi, Toa Halafihi, Sebastian Negri and Monty Ioane all went over at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi to fire Crowley’s charges to a third-placed finish in Conference A – and a watershed moment for rugby in Treviso.

Breakout player

Versatile and impactful, Federico Ruzza has developed into one of Benetton’s most important forwards and the 24-year-old was able to demonstrate the breadth of his talent during the 2018-19 season.

In February, the Padua native was handed his first Italy start against Ireland in the Guinness Six Nations – and he’d more than earned his shot.

In the Guinness PRO14, Ruzza, who can operate at lock or as a flanker, was Benetton’s key man at the lineout, winning more (58) – he was also joint-sixth in the competition overall – and pulled off more successful steals (8) than anyone else.

Meanwhile, Ruzza scored four tries and also racked up 122 tackles, making it no surprise that only Monty Ioane, Iliesa Ratuva and Dewaldt Duvenage racked up more minutes on the pitch for Benetton.

Key man

One of the nominees for the Guinness PRO14 Players’ Player of the Season award, dynamic wideman Monty Ioane earned the deserved respect of his contemporaries by living up to his billing as the most destructive weapon in the Benetton armoury.

The 24-year-old Australian proved a thorn in the side of nigh-on every side he came up against in 2018-19, scoring six tries in the process.

He racked up a whopping 893 metres, leaving no less than 65 defenders flailing in his wake and pulling of 32 successful offloads – more than anyone else in the Guinness PRO14.

For good measure, the thrilling Ioane also earned a place on the right wing in the Guinness PRO14 Dream Team.

Who’s in?

Benetton could have a new man directing proceedings from fly-half next term, having secured the capture of Ireland international Ian Keately.

The Munster stalwart – only Ronan O’Gara ranks higher on the province’s all-time scoring list – will be bringing his talents to Italy for the first time after eight seasons in a red shirt.

Keatley, who has also had spells with Leinster and Connacht, can also play at centre and full-back.

Meanwhile, South African lock Eli Snyman, 23, will be coming in from the Blue Bulls – Zimbabwe-born, he has represented the Junior Boks at Under-20 level.

French-born Italy youth international scrum-half Charly Trussardi has also been snapped up from Beziers while Benetton have also recruited Italy Under-20s flanker Michele Lamaro, who joins from Petrarca.

Who’s out?

Crossing the divide between the Guinness PRO14’s two Italian outfits, hooker Luca Bigi will strutting his stuff in Zebre colours next term.

The other major departure sees scrum-half Edoardo Gori, who has racked up 69 caps for Italy, leave to join French outfit Colomiers.

Robert Barbierei, Alberto De Marchi and Tommaso Iannone, 28, have all retired.

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