Italian rugby celebrated another famous victory over the French, the plucky underdogs once again proving that they are snapping at the heels of the rugby elite. With commentators inevitably predicting another ‘new dawn’ for Italian rugby, just how far have they come?
First, a potted history of Italian rugby. Legend has it that an Italian XV first played in 1911 with a ‘Propaganda Committee’ seeking to sow the seeds for support and involvement in the game. Although rugby was put on hold during World War II, Allied troops are said to have reintroduced the game to Italy and it took root. By the 70s and 80s, international rugby greats such as John Kirwan and David Campese were playing in Italian leagues in much the same way as Beckham looked to spread ‘soccer’ to the New World and modern-day superstars such as Sonny-Bill Williams are taking sabbaticals in Japan, where the game is currently blossoming.
At the turn of the millennium Italian rugby achieved its biggest victory yet, deemed mature enough to join the big boys in Europe’s premier rugby competition in 2000, making the Five Nations become Six. Their inaugural competition saw them pull off an outstanding 34-20 victory over reigning champions Scotland, going on to lose every other game… for the next 2 years. Although a purple patch in 2007 saw them beat Scotland away and Wales at home, they have usually only managed one notable performance per competition: in 12 competitions so far, they have been awarded the Wooden Spoon (‘awarded’ for finishing bottom out of the six teams) nine times.
Italian rugby has not lacked for great players, though. In Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse it has two superb sporting icons, the former a Garibaldi-like bearded warrior and the other a leader and supreme athlete whose frame – exhibited by his club side Stade Français’ naked calendar – puts many Roman statues to shame. Although the team has been carried by such figures in recent history (the Bergamasco brothers also modern Italian greats) Italy is producing increasingly well-rounded squads these days. This year a talented set of youngsters are gaining experience whilst their pack, with the newly-added hulking form of Francesco Minto, is matching opposition forwards to allow the backs to flourish. And yet, regrettably, the Italians do not look like winning a thing this year, crashing back down to earth and mediocrity in the loss against Scotland last weekend.
Success must be cultivated and imbued in a team. New Zealand has produced the best rugby teams in the modern era as the sport in institutionalised, coaching intense from school-level upwards and the national side supported across the country. Football-fanatic Italy is warming to the sport, but slowly so. In 2000, the Guardian’s man in Italy reported “massive indifference to rugby in Rome”. Fast-forward 13 long years and the Italian team has moved out of the undersized Stadio Flaminio and sold out nearly 70,000 tickets at the cavernous Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Italian club representation in the RaboDirect Pro12, the league of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, is positive, providing competition for the national team and resources for grassroots rugby at Italian clubs.
Rugby is gaining popularity and momentum in Italy and whilst every ‘giant-killing’ performance from an underdog Italian side will have the pundits purring and declaring a ‘new era’ for Italian rugby, patience will have to prevail.
Italy, though rightly proud of their win in Rome, need to be dissatisfied with living off the scraps of shock results and upsets and make victory familiar fare, at the top table too: with the World Cup in 2015, they have to push to get out of the group stages for the first time in their history.
And then push on to their next target of winning three games in a Six Nations tournament. And so on. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will an Italian rugby team stumble upon success in an instant.