Alan Quinlan: If Parisse was a Kiwi, he'd have won a World Cup medal
The Italian captain is up there with the best - with McCaw, O'Connell, O'Driscoll. He isn't just a great player but a great captain
Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30
Sergio Parisse has played 117 times for Italy. And lost 85 of those Tests.
Don't call him a loser, though. Not when you remember that he has been a five-time nominee for the Six Nations player of the tournament award, and twice included on the IRB's player of the year shortlist. Plus remember who was captain of Stade Francais when they won last year's Top 14 title.
If he was Irish, he'd have a Grand Slam on his CV. If he was from New Zealand, he'd have won a World Cup. He's that good, as talented as Richie McCaw, Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll - anyone.
I've been following his career closely since he made his debut as an 18-year-old against the All-Blacks in 2002, and have always been amazed not just at his talent - but his attitude.
Deep down he must know that Italy will lose more than they will win. Yet any time I played against him - or any time I have watched him - you always saw a man who considered the impossible to be possible. "You have to be realistic," he once said.
"But that does not mean you have to be defeatist. You must keep morale high and have the guys believing in each other."
All that is easier said than done, though, especially when Italy have never been able to string a run of results together.
Think back to last year - they beat Scotland - but they have not won a game against a Tier 1 nation since. Even before then, there was a relatively good year in 2013, a victory at home over France, but that was followed by losses to Scotland and England, before they went on to defeat Ireland.
And you know why it is so bad - because, pure and simply, they have a great pack, an effective scrum, a tidy line-out, but in the backline you just know they lack a touch of class and have done so since Diego Dominguez's retirement. That, by the way, was back in 2003, the year Parisse made his Six Nations debut.
"People were telling me I was mad to put him in the team at such a young age," said John Kirwan, Italy's former coach.
"But I met with his father before we picked him. That's one of the things that struck me about Sergio, his desire to be the best even then. He had a real project in his mind. Back then, too, you could see the leadership qualities in him. He wasn't loud but he had presence."
That presence was always noticeable whenever I played against him. What I like about him is the classy way he behaves, like on a day in 2007, when Ireland defeated Italy comfortably and you could see how hurt he was afterwards at the team dinner.
I watched him closely that night. He conducted himself so well yet you just knew he was pained by the loss. And that to me is the sign of a winner, someone who ignores the odds to try his best to be successful.
"He never, never gives in to fear," Kirwan once said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. "He was throwing those behind-the-back passes even as a kid. Skill allied to confidence, it's a pretty potent combination.
"You've got to be a special type to captain Italy because you are invariably dealing with the crisis of defeat. You have to help keep morale high and team spirit intact. Sergio, like many before him, does all that."
It can't have been easy. Whenever we played Italy, we always knew it would be physically tough. You never ran into an Italian expecting to get an easy passage through him. But we also knew that if we kept the ball, two things were likely to occur. Either, their indiscipline would result in them conceding a penalty or, alternatively, we would get a line break.
If those faults can be thrown at the team -no fault whatsoever is visible in Parisse's game, because he can seemingly do everything.
His line breaks are explosive, his passing is sharp, his speed is unbelievable and his defence is solid.
Against France, in the opening game of this year's Six Nations, he was immense, cruelly penalised late on, which led to the French scoring the winning penalty before he nearly stole it at the end with a drop-goal. That he - a No 8 - was even prepared to shoulder the responsibility of the team to try that drop goal is indicative of the leader he is.
"We have a pride representing our country," Parisse once said. "Yes, there have been bad days. Yes, there have been heavy defeats. But there have also been good days. We have beaten France, beaten Ireland, beaten Scotland. We go into every game knowing it will be tough. But we feel we can win."
And that's why I respect him so much. Even when Italy are playing New Zealand, you can see in Parisse's eyes that he feels they have a chance. From playing against him, I can remember too, looking across at him before a lineout and noting the absolute intensity on his face. He wanted it so badly. Never, at any stage, did you sense that this was a guy - or Italy were a team - who'd give up.
"He's a special player," said Jamie Heaslip, once. "You never get an easy day against him. Yet you always look forward to playing him because you are being tested against the best. He is one of the hardest men I have played against but also one of the best."
What made him one of the best was his mentality. Those 85 defeats must have worn him down. He must have known the statistical chances of Italy beating a Tier 1 nation would be around the 10 pc mark. Yet when you watch him sing the national anthem, watch him gallop around the field, you just could sense the enormous pride he has playing for his country.
What intrigues me even more about that is the fact he wasn't born or brought up in Italy. His father, a pilot with Italy's national airline, moved to Argentina for work purposes. Yet rugby, as well as Italy, was in the blood.
The young Sergio left Argentina as a teenager to move 'home'. Treviso was his first stop. After four seasons there, he was on the move to Stade Francais and when I watched them at close quarters against Munster in January, I saw so many of his colleagues shirk the challenge. Parisse, however, rose to it.
"Well the thing is that Sergio plays every game for Italy as if it is the last match of his life," said Nick Mallett, the former Italian coach. "He can play against the All Blacks or South Africa in South Africa and believe he is the best player on the park. No arrogance, just belief. He puts his body on the line for his team mates. They follow him always, totally. He is indomitable."
Unfortunately, though, the men around him are not. Since their emergence into the Six Nations in 2000, they have always produced great players, Italy.
But they have been in isolation whereas Argentina - who were at a similar stage of development as Italy around the turn of the century - have kicked on so much more impressively. If Argentina have got their structures right, Italy, quite simply, have not.
Which is why Sergio Parisse will always be remembered as a great player who was handicapped by the fact there weren't world class players around him.