Juan Ignacio Brex reflects on the ‘amazing’ reaction to Italy’s Six Nations campaign and how the Azzurri ‘rekindled’ their passion

James While
Rome, Italie. 09th Mar, 2024. Juan Ignacio Brex of Italy celebrates with his teammates after scoring during the 2024 Six nations Championship, rugby union match between Italy and Scotland on March 9, 2024 at Stadio Olimpico in Rome

We sat down with Juan Ignacio Brex to discuss Italy's 2024 Six Nations campaign and look ahead.

Ireland may have won the Six Nations in fine style, but the team that won the hearts and minds of all of the watching public was undoubtedly Italy, delivering two wins and a draw from their best-ever Six Nations campaign.

In the middle of the Azzurri midfield, Juan Ignacio Brex—aka Nacho—was the glue that held a wonderfully talented backline together. He personally won two Man of the Match awards and featured in virtually everyone’s Team of the Tournament. The huge Benetton three-quarter delivered a memorable personal campaign and forged arguably the best centre combination in the tournament with Tommaso Menoncello.

Brex, the winner of the Planet Rugby’s Player of the Tournament, brought to by eToro, caught up with James While, both to look back on a wonderful Six Nations, but most importantly, to focus on how Italy build their momentum from what has become a landmark season for them.

False Start

“I think it’s important to start from the beginning of our campaign,” Brex exclusively told Planet Rugby.

“Against both England and Ireland, we disappointed ourselves, and I would go as far as to say we were not happy either with our attitude or our physicality. In the match against England, there was a point where we were just six points behind, but we didn’t believe we had it in us to move forward, and our own lack of belief almost held us back.

“Our backroom staff said at that moment we didn’t gather energy and we didn’t have that Italian passion that’s so crucial to how we respond emotionally to certain points of the game. They were right, and although the criticism stung us, it was fair and accurate,” he confessed.

“So for us, it was about regaining that passion and positive mentality- some might call it self-belief, but for us, it’s the emotional DNA of the country and especially Italian rugby. In fairness, Ireland gave us a lesson in every part of their play and we knew that we were poor. But, the good thing about this was it gave us a measurement of where we truly were, so despite the frustrations of the loss, from that point, the learnings were so obvious that we could produce a roadmap of what we needed to do.

“With France in Lille next up, we knew how hard it was to go away and get a result there, but we had little to lose. We said if we improve certain aspects of that physicality in the forwards, but also attend to our emotional intelligence and rekindle our passion then we knew we could cause them problems (as Italy had done a year previously in Rome, where France scraped past 24-29 in the dying moments).”

Turning Points

“There’s no doubt we were a much better side in that Round Three match – part of the forward improvement was the return of Seb Negri as a carrier, but all of the pack really fronted up and got stuck into the French, who were also struggling for form. And despite a good first half from them, we managed to hold a position at half-time to go in 10-3, but with France suffering a few setbacks in injury on the way.

“All match, we were mentally aggressive, physically dominant in collisions, and that second-half turnaround came largely from the way we, as a defensive and breakdown unit, pressured them into mistakes. I’m really proud of the statements and improvements we made; as the leader of the defensive line myself, I was thrilled with the pace we got in our line getting up into France’s midfield, and we gave them absolutely nothing in terms of spaces to operate in. We got real momentum – and crucially, we communicated much better as a defensive line – talk, talk, talk- which, for me, is the key to great defence.

“But after the game, whilst I got messages of congratulations and we were all praised for that incredible draw, I (and my teammates) started to find a sense of frustration. We’re professionals, and we were expected to be comfortable celebrating a draw when we knew that France were on the ropes and that we’d not closed the match off.

“When you’re honest with yourself in those moments of reflection, the truth was that game was there for the taking. So the biggest learning was for us to take our opportunity next time around and for self-honesty to speak louder than perhaps the soundbites of our friends and supporters,” Brex revealed.

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Defensive Shift

After a monumental shift in Lille, Brex and his pals were in for another defensive test from that brilliant Finn Russell-led backline as they hosted Scotland.

After Paolo Garbisi opened the scoring with a penalty, Scotland roared back into control with two converted tries in 10 minutes. But it was Brex himself that inspired the fightback, gathering a Martin Page-Relo chip to crash over for his first Six Nations try after conceding 14 points in 10 minutes.

“With Scotland at home, we knew we had something to build off. But we’d lost momentum in those ten minutes, and it was up to us to turn the page and get back in the match – and that we needed to strike with seven points rather than taking points off the tee.

“It was a pre-planned move. We’d studied their defence and saw that with that type of lineout, they often didn’t have a second line of defence. It was a great bounce for me off the chip, and I managed to get over under the posts—in a packed Stadio Olimpico where we could really feel the passion and belief of our supporters.

“I was humbled at the reception our win received. I even had messages from Scottish supporters saying, ‘I’m a Scot but I’m thrilled for your win and you deserved it’- that’s the culture of rugby, and that’s why I am always surprised at the generosity of opposing supporters who want to see Italy do well,” Brex admitted.

Favourites Tag

“And going to Wales – well, the rest is history. But one point I will make is that coping with the favourites tag against Wales was something we talked about how to deal with. It doesn’t sit well with us, and we are so used to being the underdogs that going in as the favoured side means a mindset change.

“In that instance, we can’t use the ‘nothing to lose, give it a craic’ kind of discussion. So we started to talk about how being favourites meant nothing until the match was won, how futile such a tag is and how we had to leave those claims and thoughts at the door of the dressing room.

He continued: “But the reception to our win was yet again amazing. You know you’re doing something right when press and supporters are all congratulating you and I look back with immense pride at how we, as a team and individuals, reacted to the setbacks of the first two rounds and changed our season around.”

Rating every Italy player from their impressive Six Nations campaign: ‘Record-breaking’ leader and Brex ‘arguably the best’

Built-in Benetton

With 16 players (and Brex himself) of the Azzurri squad hailing from one club, Benetton Treviso, Nacho is keen to stress the importance of club combinations as a base for test excellence. And, in the middle of those combos, reflecting on his relationship and bromance with fellow club and test centre Tomasso Menoncello, thought by many to be the best partnership in the tournament this season:

“He calls me Dad, and I call him my son!” Brex laughed.

“Seriously, there’s ten years difference between us, so he’s always reminding me of my age! But yes, I love playing with him and he offers so many different skills that we both bounce off each other’s different styles, which is great.

“At club and test level, we change up a lot and move around the midfield. Since I broke my wrist twice in a season a few years back, I had limited movement passing left to right, but I worked hard to overcome that with physios and coaches, and as a result, we developed that pull-back pass that Tommy and our back three love running onto. It relies upon me challenging the line physically, and then right at the moment of contact, I can make that pull-back pass, knowing Tommy or Monty (Ioane) are more than likely to have read my thoughts and be there for me,” explained the Benetton star.

“Tommy is a beast in terms of his talent – fast, much faster than I am, and hugely physical. But our differences make us more complete. I can’t compete with his prowess in attack, but I am the facilitator and the guy who does the unseen work.

“However, it’s all well and good having natural gifts, but Tommy is also a rugby sponge – he craves to be the best, always asking, always looking for work-ons or room for improvements and that’s his most impressive quality,” Brex confirmed.

No complacency

With Italy visiting the South Pacific during the Summer, they will face Samoa and Tonga before returning to the northern hemisphere to face Japan in the Sapporo Dome on 21 July. Brex is quick to point out that today’s results are tomorrow’s history and that for Italy to maintain credibility, consistency is now their key.

“They are massive challenges,” he said.

“Firstly, we have Tonga and Samoa, who are super-physical, and Japan, who are different. They aren’t as physical, but they’re quick and dynamic and will ask us different questions. We need to go back to how we felt after rounds one and two and remember that pain in order to keep ourselves real. Progress is about moving forward consistently and predictably, and I believe we can do that.

“Gonzalo Quesada has been amazing for us, and that’s not to say our other coaches haven’t also been great. But Gonzalo’s detail is second to none, so we’re getting a lot of information on both ourselves and our opponents, but delivered in a way that makes us feel empowered. That, in turn, gives us confidence our preparation is on point- he wants us to feel armed and prepared, which is key. We have come from the past where we’ve experienced failure, but with his vision and our understanding of how bad those feelings of failure are, I’m very hopeful we can get a solid return from our summer tour.”

Brex added: “Let’s not forget about Kieran Crowley. I wrote to him to thank him because I think he did a great, great job with us in creating our identity, and that was the beginning of this story and this historic Six Nations.”

Life Balance

“For the now, I am enjoying some quiet downtime before the URC starts, with hopes for Benetton to qualify for the playoffs. We’re eighth at the moment with a very compressed table, and with the Italian players high in confidence, we believe we can get a tangible return. The Italian papers have reacted well to our tournament, and we’ve had huge coverage, sometimes front and second pages of the press, unheard of in a soccer-mad country like Italy,” said Brex, a self-confessed supporter of both Boca Juniors and Inter-Milan.

“But for now, I want to just rest and rebalance myself for a week or so and some family time is key. I have two kids- two years old and one only three months old. My wife and the children were back in Argentina during the Championship, and now we’re back in Treviso, where I’m getting my body back to full fitness after a bruising campaign, but one that’s given me the biggest smile of my career.

“It’s been quite the ride!” Brex concluded.

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