Sunday 25 February 2018

Excluding Italy would be counter productive – why tamper with a successful tournament?

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Masi of Italy sing the national anthem during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Italy at Twickenham Stadium (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Masi of Italy sing the national anthem during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Italy at Twickenham Stadium (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Mick Cleary

Italy to be relegated from the Six Nations championship? That as noble and dignified a figure as Sergio Parisse had to contend with questions like that in the wake of defeat at Twickenham on Saturday fills the soul with despair.

Whatever happened to fairness and solidarity and brotherhood? And, yes, since the thought is in your head somewhere, do you really want to pass up on a trip to the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona every two years?

Sport can be fun as much as it can be business. But the sporting context holds sway. Why deprive an audience running in to millions of the chance to see one of the game’s greatest ever No8s play?

Parisse, strident, defiant, athletic, heroic – there have been few more consistent performers in the history of the sport, never mind in Italian rugby. For that reason alone, to suggest that Italy ought to be subject to exclusion if there were to be promotion and relegation is sacrilegious.

Italy have earned our support. They have not got this stage by chance or casual favour, waved in to the reckoning on a whim. They went through years of auditions, pressing their case for inclusion throughout the nineties.

You might argue that by the time the closed shop opened its doors in 2000 that particular Italian generation had gone beyond its peak, the blue-shirted tribe led the warrior-figure of Massimo Giovanelli on the flank.

Even so, they still won their opening day fixture, beating Scotland 34-20 at the Stadio Flaminio to scenes of exultation. Why, rugby even trumped football on the pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport that weekend. Italy had new heroes to acclaim.

There have been plenty of similar days since then with victories over every single side in the Six Nations, except for England. Two years ago, France and Ireland were beaten in Rome.

There have been wins on the road, too, in Edinburgh, in Dublin (pre-Six Nations entry) and a draw in Cardiff (18-18) in 2006. Italy have also defeated France in Grenoble (40-32) in 1997.

Italy are no patsies. They have produced some of the finest players of the last two decades in Parisse, Giovanelli, fly-half Diego Dominguez, scrum-half Alessandro Troncon, lock Carlo Checchinato, wing Paolo Vaccari, the Bergamasco and Cuttitta brothers as well as a legion of tough-as-teak front-rowers such as Martin Castrogiovanni.

Nor should we understate the provenance of the likes of centre Luca Morisi, who lit up Twickenham on Saturday in much the way that Jonathan Joseph did in English colours. You do not dismiss these men lightly.

And all for what? With due respect to the likes of Georgia or Portugal or Spain, or from another era when they troubled the home nations and France as much as Italy do these days, Romania, the merits of their claim for inclusion does not hold much substance.

They would be wiped out by all the other sides, perhaps even humiliated. Of course, in theory, there is an argument that opening up the competition to a more meritocratic entry system would serve to enhance standards in those countries and spread the rugby gospel through Europe.

 The theory has some appeal but the reality does not. There are other channels for those countries to push forward their development plans, through the second tier of European club rugby perhaps, or with the winner of the second-tier Six Nations tournament being granted an automatic November fixture against the bottom-placed side in the championship.

That team has been Italy on 10 occasions, and another wooden spoon beckons if they do not manage to beat Scotland in Edinburgh on February 28. That fixture has a particular resonance as far as this debate is concerned. It was only a year ago that there were calls for Scotland to be shunted out into the cold after their witless, dismal performance against England at Murrayfield.

It was the manner of the 20-0 loss that provoked calls for their dismissal as much as the margin of it. Scotland were devoid of spirit, a heinous deficiency for a public raised on the stirring deeds of a John Jeffrey or David Sole.

The impression of a rugby nation in decline was compounded by the glib antics of their then coach, Australian Scott Johnson, a man with a ready quip but no gravitas.

Fast forward 12 months and that unappealing shtick has been replaced by the down-to-earth Kiwi demeanour of Vern Cotter, a bloke who trades in proper rugby matters and not in pantomime routines. And even if the taciturn Cotter does not wave a tickle-stick at every press conference, his team certainly bring fun and frolics to the field of play.

Scotland may well have lost their opening matches, against France and Wales, but there has been real zest and intelligence in their game. Players such as fullback Stuart Hogg, centre, Alex Dunbar and fly-half Finn Russell have made major contributions to the buzz and acclaim that have accompanied the first two rounds of the 2015 championship.

The tournament works. The television viewing figures are high. The standard of play has been variable yet engaging. The matches play to a backdrop of noise and colour in sold-out stadiums. The product is a seller.

The championship continues to provide a sporting carnival that is the envy of many not only for the drama it engenders but also for what it represents on the European front. The six European capitals host a wandering tribe of supporter across five weekends, injecting not just money in to local economies, but also a sense of connection and belonging.

You tamper with that at your peril.

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