Monday 23 September 2019

Comment: Italy are wasting their time and ours - they don't belong in the Six Nations anymore


Mattia Bellini, right, of Italy reacts after his side concede a third try during the Six Nations match against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Mattia Bellini, right, of Italy reacts after his side concede a third try during the Six Nations match against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's a game against Italy, what can you say about it? Think back to this time last year when a huge Ireland victory featured a hat-trick of tries from substitute Craig Gilroy. Gilroy was a bit of a forgotten man at international level before that game. He's probably even more of a forgotten man now.

That hat-trick didn't change the Ulster winger's standing in the game one jot. That's because nothing that happens in a game against Italy matters very much. Last year's fixture saw Ireland win by the record margin of 53 points. Less than a month later we were getting stuffed by Wales in Cardiff. Nothing of any serious worth can be inferred or extrapolated from our useless annual Italian job.

It's ridiculous when you think of it. In every round of the Six Nations only two out of three games possess a competitive element. The result of the other is known before it gets under way. In every round the match involving Italy is the antithesis of what serious international sport is supposed to be about.

Italy don't belong in the Six Nations. Their place is in some kind of subsidiary tournament along with the likes of Fiji, Japan, Georgia and Tonga, all of whom sit above them in the world rankings. In terms of world ranking points, Romania, Samoa, the USA and Uruguay are all closer to Italy than Italy are to France, the next lowest-ranked Six Nations side.

The irony is that Italy aren't even the sixth best team in Europe right now. Georgia would probably beat them but we can't be sure because the Six Nations has been keen to prevent a match between the two sides for fear of any embarrassing questions raised by an inconvenient result.

So Italy meander on in the most dispiriting of fashions. Their representatives in this season's Champions Cup, Benetton Treviso had the worst record in the competition and the poorest home crowds. Zebre are bottom of their group in the Pro14. The two Italian teams are the worst-supported clubs in that competition.

And, as was proven again yesterday, their international team have about as much chance of winning a match in the Six Nations as the Christians had of scoring a shock victory against the lions in the Colosseum.

A few years back Italy were able to pinch an odd victory in the tournament but they've got considerably worse in the last couple of seasons. Last year's great boosterish cliché about the Italians was that 'Conor O'Shea has them on the right track.' There was not an iota of evidence to support this assertion but O'Shea is Irish and seems a nice guy so pundits felt duty-bound to trot it out.

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This year's saying du jour is the somewhat less optimistic - 'It's a long-term project.' No shit, Sherlock. However, I can see a scenario whereby Italy could become contenders for a Six Nations title. It involves global warming causing a rise in ocean levels that buries the islands of Ireland and Britain beneath the waves forever. Should that happen Italy would have a good chance of finishing second to France. When O'Shea eventually bows to the inevitable and leaves Italy, those who've spent the last couple of years bigging up Italy's prospects under their new manager will say, "What could he do? It was an impossible task." Only this time they'll be right.

Italy do not belong in the Six Nations, and perhaps never will, yet they will remain there in perpetuity if only because six is a nice round number and prevents any team getting the advantage of some extra rest before a particularly important game. Also Rome is a great place for a weekend away whereas the attractions of Tbilisi are more of an acquired taste.

The Pollyannas among us might suggest that the tries scored by Italy yesterday give cause for encouragement. But the truth is that these were scored in what the Americans like to call garbage time.

In fact, the most noteworthy thing about yesterday's game is that it might have set a record for the amount of garbage time in a Six Nations match. Once Ireland had gone 21 points up in as many minutes, the result was a foregone conclusion and everything else had a somewhat attenuated feel to it.

Hence the largely subdued nature of the crowd and the slightly unreal atmosphere which prevailed. It was reminiscent of what you get at an Irish international soccer friendly or at one of those glorified pre-season kick-abouts occasionally indulged by English Premier League sides at the Aviva. There was fun to be had; Jacob Stockdale putting on the afterburners to dismiss the chasing posse before his second try, Keith Earls' wonderful try-denying pursuit in the last minute, some masterly stuff from Conor Murray and some hot stepping from Bundee Aki, but a serious competitive match this was not.

In the end Ireland put up 56 points to go with last year's 63 and the 58 from the year before that. Joe Schmidt hardly learned much and perhaps the most significant happening of the game may turn out to be the injury suffered by Robbie Henshaw, which goes to show that even the most pointless of games have the ability to throw up a worrying injury.

Everything else was about as meaningful as that Craig Gilroy hat-trick from last year.

For all the tries and all the open play there was something immensely tedious about the whole spectacle.

Italy aren't just wasting their own time in the Six Nations, they're wasting everyone else's too.

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