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Peter Bills: Italian Joie De Vivre big part of Six Nations

A drive through the heartland of Italian soccer last weekend set me thinking about Italy and rugby.

Steering the car out of Milan, home of the mighty AC and Internazionale clubs, past the autostrada signs to Torino, home of Juventus, and then south, following the signs to Bologna and Parma, I seemed enmeshed in a world of Italian soccer.

So, what room is there in Italian sport for rugby? What possible hope can there be of Italy ever becoming a power in the Six Nations? What justification is there for allowing Italy to participate?

Well, my answer would be plenty, for all sorts of reasons.

Let's look firstly at the historical context. France first competed in the Five Nations Championship in 1910. They had been playing some of the individual countries earlier than that, such as England in 1906. But it took them 17 matches before they finally beat England for the first time, 3-0 in Paris in 1927.

France, in fact, didn't win what was termed the old 'International Championship' outright until 1959, although they did share it in 1954 and 1955.

These statistics do have relevance. Italy were admitted to the tournament in 2000 and have endured a similar struggle to that of France in their early years, having lost 47 of their 55 matches played so far.

Nor is there much solace to be found for Italian clubs in the Heineken Cup. Benetton Treviso lost all of their six matches in Pool 5 of this year's tournament, the last a 62-15 flogging by Leicester last weekend.

Aironi, who play in Viadana where I went last weekend, did win one game in Pool 4 -- a shock 28-27 victory over Biarritz -- but it happened only because the dozy French club never turned up mentally on the day.

Apart from that, Aironi got hammered from pillar to post by Ulster, Bath and Biarritz in France.

We can fully expect a similar outcome when Italy play in their 12th Six Nations tournament, starting at the end of next week against Ireland in Rome. Italy have never beaten Ireland and they won't do so this season either.

But the Italians have beaten Wales and Scotland already in past Six Nations games and they will challenge them again this year.

But do we judge Italy solely on results? Or do we look at other issues to justify their presence at the top table? I suggest the latter is appropriate.

In one sense, Aironi last weekend was no different to any other Italian rugby set-up. They offer a warm, genuine welcome to all-comers; they smile, they seek to help you and they make you feel good about being there. Are these not some of the great traditional values of rugby football?

You need a seat inside the press box rather than outside? Don't worry, someone will stand at the back while you use theirs.

You can't get the internet working from the media area? Not a problem. Come into the club offices and use our internet cables. Half an hour after the finish last weekend, every visiting journalist from Ireland was seated in the club's office, filing from the line.

They offer you coffee, a pleasant chat and friendship. Old fashioned? Sure. But what's wrong with that? Better than the surly expressions you get at some grounds in other countries.

ordinary

Facilities at Rome's Stadio Flaminio are ordinary in the extreme for the working media but there's nothing sub-standard about the greeting you get from Italian rugby men. It's as though they understand implicitly the values upon which this great game was forged and are determined to do their bit to uphold them, even if they may be slipping away elsewhere.

Men like Nick Mallett, Italy's coach, insist that the presence of two Italian sides in the Magners League and Heineken Cup will have a long-term, positive effect on Italian rugby. However, he also warns it will not happen overnight and that is understandable in a land still dominated by soccer.

But sometimes you have to consider other factors in an equation. Sure, I'd like to see Italy play at least one of their Six Nations home games in Milan, at the San Siro, which is so much closer to their rugby heartland. It's a sensational atmosphere too.

But the Italians bring many attributes to the Six Nations. Enthusiasm, joie de vivre and rugby's old fashioned courtesies are just some of them. For me, the tournament is enhanced by their presence.

Irish Independent