Meet the Welsh coach with one of the toughest jobs in the URC
On the face of it, Richard Hodges has just about the toughest job in the URC as Zebre’s new defence coach.
After all, the Italians conceded no fewer than 101 tries in losing all 18 league games last season, 28 more than any other side and an average of 5.6 a match.
But, from being daunted, former Cardiff Rugby coach Hodges is excited by the challenge and encouraged by the team’s performances so far this season.
They led at half-time against both Ulster and the Ospreys before going down to narrow defeats, picking up four bonus points along the way.
It does mean their losing run in the URC is now up to 21 matches, but Hodges insists they are starting to change the perception of them as a laughing stock and earn some respect.
“When I got there, the kicking strategy was non-existent, our discipline was the worst in the league, we turned the ball over more than anybody else,” he said.
“But, in the last two weeks, that’s not been the case. We have hugely improved our kicking game, our discipline has been good, our set piece is a threat and we’ve scored a maul try in each match.
“Listen, you can look at the outcomes and there is frustration (at the results), but what we are doing in the week is coming forward at the weekend. Our training week has improved, so our performances have improved.
“We now go into three homes games – Bulls, Sharks, Cardiff. It won’t be easy, but our aim is to try and knock one of them over.
“Our priority this season is to try and get some wins at home, win a derby and try and get out of the group stage in Europe, in the Challenge Cup.”
Hodges continued: “People are starting to have a bit of respect back for Zebre. We are going in the right direction.
“I came here because I wanted a real challenge. Can we turn them from a side that’s a bit of a laughing stock at times into one that’s viewed differently?
“The perception was you just had to turn up against Zebre. The reality now is that people will take us seriously.”
As for his decision to head for Parma – after a decade at the Arms Park as Academy manager and defence coach – Hodges has no regrets.
“The easiest thing for me to do was to stay at Cardiff,” said the father-of-two.
“I could have done that and it’s a club that’s dear to me. I had been there a long time.
“But I need to develop and grow. It was a good move for family, with the age of the kids for them to come and live in a different country and learn a new language, a different culture, a different climate. The kids are in the European school in Parma, loving life, and it’s 28 degrees at the moment. It makes such a difference being in and around that weather day in, day out.
“So, from a family point of view, it’s something we wanted to explore and so far it’s been so good.”
On the rugby front, he added: “It’s an enjoyable group to work with. They are desperate to improve, they are open to learning.
“Anybody who has watched our first two games will have some respect for the way we have gone about our work.
“Look, it’s going to be a bit of a rollercoaster. We are going to have some tough days at the office.
“But I promise you, if we keep training like we do, we will win games this year.
“It is a challenge, but if I can get us into a side that’s not down the bottom all the time, then hopefully we will get a bit of respect back.”
Zebre raced into a 12-0 lead against the Ospreys at the Swansea.com Stadium and were 19-17 up at the break, with wing Simone Gesi crossing twice to add to his double in the 40-36 loss to Ulster.
In the end, they went down 34-31, but they outscored their hosts by five tries to four – with Kiwi back Scott Gregory also pouching a double – to come away with another two points.
Ospreys coach Toby Booth was full of praise for the Italian outfit, saying: “They are going to create problems for people. They have quality threats and they are going to be a team that’s difficult to deal with.”
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