Uncertainty still lingers ahead of big kick-off
The status of the cross-border competitions must be a concern for anyone with an interest in the Six Nations, says Brendan Fanning
It was on a bright, warm day on February 5, 2000 when a packed Stadio Flaminio welcomed Italy to the Six Nations for the first time. The timing of their arrival at the top table was at once perfect and some way removed from that. On the one hand a new century had just dawned, and what better way for a game that was finding its feet in a professional world than to welcome a new partner. On the other, that same partner had reached its peak with this particular playing group some two years previously.
Still, this was an historic day, and big names like Alessandro Troncon, Diego Dominguez and Massimo Cuttitta were not going to let it pass without leaving their mark.
"I was one of the lucky ones – one of the old players to get as far as the Six Nations," Cuttitta says. "We worked really hard for a long time to get Italy to that point. We were always dreaming about playing in such a competition so it was like a big present for us that day, and a great satisfaction for me at the end of my career."
They went after the Scots, who were the reigning Five Nations champions, from the first whistle. By the time referee Jonathan Kaplan wrapped it up before a rapturous audience, the Scots had been beaten out the gate.
Dominguez, one of the great outhalves of the game, had an awesome afternoon, kicking six penalties, dropping three goals, and converting Giampero de Carli's try.
"He was incredible that day," recalls Gregor Townsend, who played opposite him. "It was a brilliant atmosphere as you can imagine – a lot of emotion – and Italy played really well. We were very disappointed with our performance and maybe thought we could just pick up where we left off having done so well the year before. It doesn't work that way."
The Scots supporters followed out through the same gap as their team, albeit feeling much better about life. This was Rome after all – what a fantastic addition to the Championship circuit! So they drifted back to the magnificent Piazza del Popolo where in no time a huge party with supporters from both sides was in full swing.
At one stage a man with a Scottish saltire painted perfectly on his face, and dressed in the full regalia, lifted his kilt dramatically from the front, and then from the back, exposing a sight best kept under wraps. Offended as much by what had been revealed as the fact that it had been revealed at all, a Scottish witness declared: "Oh dear, how disappointing". Whereupon his Italian pal nodded towards the clown and said: "He's actually Italian".
It was that sort of day. Inclusivity and togetherness were the themes, everyone on the lash and celebrating a new era for rugby in Europe. Here was a fresh market in a country of more than 60 million people, waiting to be carried away on rugby's tide.
If you were a surfer though the Italian wave wouldn't have had you rushing out with your board. It had started with that wildly misleading indicator of 34 points put on the Scots that day, yet over the next 13 campaigns Italy never surpassed that figure in a home game. Bizarrely, they did it once, though away from home – appropriately enough in Edinburgh, in 2007.
The downside was that Italy were always stuck at, or around, the foot of the table, save for two seasons where they climbed up to fourth. The upside was that they were still capable of overcoming their weak domestic programme to compete at all.
That didn't change until they complemented their Heineken Cup involvement with entry to Celtic rugby's corner two-and-a-half years ago. Within a season of the Pro12 being established, however, the landscape of Europe started to twist out of shape with the English and French clubs declaring a new vision.
The politics around that are what should worry the Italians every bit as much as whether or not they can live up to last season's Six Nations performance. They have declared that they won't be shelling out the €3m a season – a third of the Italian federation's budget – which has been the price asked of them to get into the Pro12 party. And they are re-examining the shape of their own structure, and whether they will have two teams next season or one. With Benetton reviewing their long-standing sponsorship of Treviso, it's possible that Zebre will be the lone Italian in a cross-border competition next season.
The shape of those cross-border competitions should concern anyone with an interest in the Championship, the premier annual competition in world rugby, for the quality of Test level competition is shaped by what happens in the club world.
Starting tomorrow with a meeting of the professional game sub-committee of the Six Nations, the week will be dominated by further talks among the unions and their offshoots at club level. Tomorrow's meeting is a follow-on from the Six Nations committee meeting in London last Monday during which some of those involved, in what has become a turn-off topic for the average fan, thought there was light at the end of the tunnel. Then they had to flatten themselves against the wall as a train approached.
Still there is no resolution to the mess of two broadcasters, Sky and BT, having contracts to the same game at the same time in the same parish. It is inconceivable that there is no exit clause from the BT Vision contract with PRL in England, for when that deal was done there was no shape on what competition would exist after the Heineken and Amlin Cups. How could you not have a reverse gear on a journey in the dark?
Tomorrow the sub-committee – which includes the chief executives from each of the unions – will try and move forward the idea of shifting the Heineken Cup under the auspices of the Six Nations office in Dublin, which already controls the Lions and the Pro12.
That would be quite an empire for John Feehan, the Six Nations chief executive. And it would sit well with PRL who want the demise of ERC. They started out looking for change on finance and structure and achieved as much with the unions announcing in November a 20-team competition with a more equitable divvy-up of the cash. The next stage in the PRL offensive is to achieve regime change, or rather a new organisation, without ERC's chairman Jean Pierre Lux or chief executive Derek McGrath.
The bottom line for the unions is that they retain overall control, and for the rebels it's about having a new organisation which they can drive commercially. We'll see then if the unions are prepared to throw Lux and McGrath under the bus if they think it will facilitate it moving forward with everyone on board. Lux has been there from the kick-off and was re-elected ahead of Peter Wheeler three years ago, which didn't appeal much to PRL. McGrath, who has been in the role since 2000, has been PRL's target since he did the contract extension with Sky, a move which was made in clear daylight, made commercial sense, and had everyone onside at the time.
So this week might see the fog clear a bit on what next season will look like. The effect across the board of this uncertainty has been hugely stressful. On Friday in Wales, for example, the decision of Alun Wyn Jones to sign on again with the Ospreys was greeted like a shot of morphine to a critically ill patient. Of course the pain hasn't gone away entirely, unlike the rump of their playing pool. Their preparation for Saturday against Italy in Cardiff has been against the backdrop of having 33 players outside the Welsh system, and, so, beyond the control of Warren Gatland. Of course a lump of those would be of no interest to him, but certainly 12 of them would feature largely in his plans.
Most of them are in France. It's not doing a whole lot for their game either to have so many overseas operators clogging up the route to the national team.
Their new captain Pascal Pape was fairly forthright at the tournament launch last week in suggesting other clubs take a leaf from the book of his own club, Stade Francais, in growing their own. Stade have fewer non-qualified French players – eight – than all but two of the seven Heineken Cup clubs this season. Toulon, for example, have an unfeasible mob of 20 who are of no use to national coach Philippe Saint-André.
The five-year tv deal at €71m a season for the French clubs, announced two weeks ago, is like a steroid shot to their financial muscle. So they will continue to plunder from Wales as long as that country can't give its players any certainty around who they are playing with and where.
Even then the French may still raid their resources. Events in this country would suggest that that traffic, which looked like speeding up after Johnny Sexton's move to Paris last summer, will be light enough.
As for the Italians, if they go down to one team then the rest of their players will be queuing up for flights to France, which long-term would not be good business for the national side.
Massimo Cuttitta hopes they will be competitive again when this 15th Championship kicks off on Saturday. Not so sure about that one. An Italian colleague suggested that if Ireland and England are still in contention coming to the last two rounds, where they encounter Italy in Dublin and Rome respectively, then it will be like the last two miles of the Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France. Get out the lycra lads.