Wednesday 26 September 2018

Rugby waiting for Italy to catch up

Guaranteed position at the top table is coming under scrutiny

Sergio Parisse gets away from Joey Carbery in what proved to be a 96th defeat in an Italian shirt. Photo: Reuters
Sergio Parisse gets away from Joey Carbery in what proved to be a 96th defeat in an Italian shirt. Photo: Reuters
David Kelly

David Kelly

At some stage this year, and we can confidently assume it will be sooner rather than later, Sergio Parisse will lose his 100th game in an Italian shirt.

That will be 100 times he has trudged from a fallow field, passing through rugby's familiar human tunnel of politely patronising handclaps and hair-tousling condescension.

Well played. Bravo. Cheers. Bien joué.

Hollow consolations have been tossed like confetti in every year since 2002 and in every city from Hamilton to Edinburgh and all points in between.

That's 100 times. Anybody can have a bad century, right?

In a fortnight, Parisse will start his 128th of 131 internationals hoping to avoid a 97th loss, as Italy seek to avoid extending their winless run in the Six Nations championship.

A 15th successive defeat would represent a new low for the Italians since rugby's oldest and most exclusive club deigned to grant them admission in 2000.

Conor O'Shea grew up in a country that at one time hugged moral defeats for warm comfort, so any attempt to metaphorically tousle his hair is violently rebuffed.

Neither is there a mood for a lynching; Italy have never before scored so many points in a competitive match on Irish soil.

And so we shrug our way through the inquest, kicking the corpse and whistling the indifference of a leafy suburbanite dismissing the latest gangland killing.

O'Shea had privately warned his squad that Ireland would produce the greatest challenge to them of this or any other year. Publicly he had declared that if both sides played to their potential, his would lose.

It would have made more sense had he decided to invert those two statements. He was correct in saying that if he told his players they could beat Ireland they would laugh at him. Even if he did, this joke isn't funny any more.

Certainly Parisse wasn't smiling as, dazed upon the dais, his praise for the Irish seemed for all the world like another exercise in self-flagellation.

"Ireland play much better rugby than England for me," he said. "It's much more difficult to defend against them. For me, personally it was far more difficult against Ireland. I like the way they play."

The point is that Ireland usually get to dictate the way they play when the Italians come to town; last week Conor Murray passed 145 times and France made a record number of tackles as Joe Schmidt's side almost stunned themselves into defeat, such was their attacking impotence.

A week later they are exchanging passes within the five-metre channel as if infused with the spirit of the Barbarians.

In Schmidt's time in charge of the Irish side in the tournament since 2014, his side have scored 61 tries in 22 matches, an average of 2.77 per game.

Plummets

Isolating Italy, the average soars to seven. Yet in the meaningful competitive tests against the original members of the old Five Nations, that ratio plummets to 1.53.

It is very unsatisfactory to contemplate the prospect of the Six Nations title being decided by an abacus, the accumulation of points scored against the whipping boys, unless England and Ireland continue their inevitable progress towards a final day shoot-out.

Ireland's late concession of a try in Rome in 2007 virtually decided that title campaign, denying Eddie O'Sullivan his sole championship as a head coach.

This season needs to be defined by the meeting between the best two teams in the competition, not their respective results against the worst.

O'Shea, for one, believes the former scenario remains the more likely case, although it will not save his side from even more public scrutiny.

"It's difficult to say. If you were to ask me now you'd say Ireland will win. I can't see anything other than it going down to March 17," he says.

As O'Shea fluidly swerves between English and the Italian language he has learned in double-quick time, it is obvious that it will take much longer for his side to grasp anything other than the language of defeat.

"I want to do something special for this man in the next two years," says O'Shea, gesturing at the almost inert Parisse. "We're working extremely hard to try to make that happen."

And yet, the sight of Mattia Bellini being chased down successfully by the wonderful Keith Earls in the final play illustrates that Italy have so much catching up to do in so many ways.

When O'Shea was hand-picked for his Italian job, the admission from the Azzurri was that they had effectively stood still for more than a decade while the rest of the world accelerated away.

The annual speculation about whether Italy can win even one championship match has been overtaken by a debate about whether they should automatically assume the right to have the chance at all.

Georgia started what will probably be an 10th Nations Cup title with an easy win against Belgium on Saturday and visit England this week to help their preparations for the final weeks of the season.

There will, one presumes, be repeated noises from their camp about the unfair manner in which they remain excluded from the Six Nations, just as Italy once did in the late 1990s when they used to beat teams like Ireland for fun.

Georgia are ranked two places ahead of Italy, regularly attract attendances north of 60,000 when they stage games in Tbilisi, but Six Nations chiefs have ruled out any prospect of an invitation or the introduction of promotion and relegation between the two competitions.

The closed shop, it seems, only opens its doors once ever century; 1910 for France, 2000 for Italy.

Georgia play Italy in an intriguing November Test later this year, which may crank up the chat once more.

Speculation

"We've got to look at it from the integrity of our competition and what's good for us and not necessarily what's good for Georgia," is Six Nations CEO John Feehan's long-standing view.

"A game like that could involve all sorts of speculation that wouldn't necessarily be helpful.

"My role is to make sure that the six unions which are involved in the Six Nations maintain the credibility of the tournament."

Some would charge that the credibility of the event is already undermined by Italy's guaranteed presence.

For many supporters Rome is the dream trip out of all the Six Nations away destinations. From food to culture, weather to architecture, almost everything is guaranteed to be top-class - except the team's performance.

The Six Nations retains a loyal support base, boasting the highest average attendance of any sporting competition in the world, and it is the tournament that singularly drives the majority of revenues for all its members. Hence they are unlikely to change the status quo.

As O'Shea has already discovered, though, he will have to wait for his adopted country to compensate for so many lost years of development.

The question now is how long can the rest of rugby wait?

Irish Independent

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