Italy's bruiser role puts progress on back foot
Before Italy joined the Six Nations they had a formidable team that would have held their end up in the championship throughout the 1990s. Italian rugby was rudely professional before it dawned on, say, the Celtic nations that the game was about to go open.
David Campese would spend the Australian off-season in Milan and earn himself a decent crust in a competitive Italian championship. Italy in the 90s, just as Romania had been in the 1980s, were ready for inclusion long before the Five Nations was ready for expansion.
Romania never received an invitation, and the sport that prospered under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu fell apart after the revolution of 1989.
Italy were favoured with inclusion, but it was their bad luck that when the moment came their golden generation was over the hill. They beat Scotland on the day that they entered the Six Nations in 2000, but it has largely been a struggle ever since.
Countries outside the top annual tournaments of Europe tend to choose a rugby education of brute strength up front and illiteracy behind. Georgia are superb purveyors of props, Romania of soaring second rows, but there has not been a centre three-quarter between them.
Italy, too, are muscular up front and pretty ordinary behind. They are better than muscular in truth, for Mauro Bergamasco will run and tackle all day and all night, his massive heart pounding away. They will devotedly push and heave at the scrum, and pick and drive at the breakdown. But when the ball goes down the line, their bravery gives way to indecision and imprecision. International rugby is no place to pass in hope.
There are solid players in the back line, from Andrea Masi on the wing to Gonzalo Canale in the centre, and a little bit of a dash in the brother of Mauro, Mirco Bergamasco, on the wing.
But skills and angles and variations in pace need to be tested in fierce internal competitions, and the Italian club championship is less professional than it used to be in the amateur days. The Heineken Cup tends to leave the Italian clubs flattened, although Treviso did cause one of the upsets of the season in beating Perpignan.
It was a performance based on bravery and breakaway, however. Of accepting a gift or two and hanging on. Just like Italy did in another defeat of Scotland, at Murrayfield, or their win over Wales in Rome.
Can Italy develop a back-line strategy? Nobody is bending over to help them, with the entry of two regional teams into the Magners League blocked by Celtic demands for a cash down payment. Italy need to be encouraged, not fined.
So, until they are allowed to rehearse routines in testing conditions it seems Italy's role will be to knock everybody about and lose. They have a place in the Six Nations but only as suppliers of a fantastic weekend in Rome and lots of bruises.