San Siro experiment lives up to the hype
November 15, 2009
The All Blacks take to the field at the San Siro ahead of their sold-out clash with Italy © Getty Images
It was the day in Milan when everything stopped for rugby. To walk through the Piazza del Duomo generated the same expectant pre-match feeling as if taking a stroll down Grafton Street, Dublin, or Cardiff's Westgate on a big-match day.
There was a buzz created by the arrival of the world's most famous rugby team. The Italians love the All Blacks and that was why some 80,000 (give or take a few thousand New Zealanders) would make their way later to the San Siro, the city's football Cathedral. And the thousands paid top dollar, too, generating ticket revenue alone of near 2.5 million Euros. Next Saturday Italy host world champions South Africa in Udine where they will be lucky to attract 20,000.
To keep rugby's café society happy, Gazetta dello Sport, the daily bible of Italian football, produced a rugby pull out and printed the words of the Haka alongside graphics. It could have been the Western Mail on a Saturday morning of a Wales match though the Cardiff newspaper always demands a home victory.
And the big question following the All Blacks' latest visit (only the fourth since 1995) is when will the Italians turn the passion for all things New Zealand into a competitive rivalry? At least the gap is shrinking and there should be no more thrashings like the 76-14 posted in the Rugby World Cup pool match two years ago.
On that fateful day, in Marseille, the Italians turned their backs on the Haka in an effort to stay focused on their own performance rather than wallow in adulation. Pierre Berbizier's idea failed and the Italians have faced the Haka, man-for-man ever since, backed up by a fierce stare or two from the likes of Signor Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, the Leicester prop described by one visiting New Zealand commentator as looking like a 'base player from a grunge band.'
Berbizier's departure as head coach was finally settled in that dire World Cup game when Scotland gained a quarter-final place by winning an evening of goal kicks in St Etienne. Thousand of expectant Italian fans, bussed in from their northern strongholds, journeyed home through the night despondent that a coveted last-eight spot had been squandered.
Those same supporters charged into Milan. It may be a football-mad city but Northern Italy is rugby's heartland as well and they spilled out of trains and buses. It was their big day out, just like the boys from the Valleys or the folks from Cork or Belfast.
The success of the venture should re-open the debate among Italian Federation members about staging a Six Nations match away from Rome. But that south versus north debate is for another day.
The preliminaries lived up to the hype. When the San Siro is full it is an inspiring sight. Italy needed heroic deeds to match the occasion. The afternoon did produce some notable performances - Parisse and Castrogiovanni the stand-out performers - but the All Blacks never feared they were in sight of losing an unbeaten record against Italy.
Italy started well, gaining an early lead through the first of Craig Gower's two penalty goals, faded in the first half, started slowly in the second half and finished on top. They generated enough pressure in the later stages to give the partisan home crowd something to remember apart from the beloved preliminaries of the Haka and a lusty rendition of the Italian national anthem.
All that pressure should have gained at least a penalty try for New Zealand repeatedly collapsing the scrum. But Italy's real chance was lost in the first half. They forced a number of attacking positions only to make crucial mistakes. The knock-on by Gower, after Italy had won a turnover following a scrum on the 22-metre line, was calamitous.
New Zealand never need a second chance to counter attack and the only try of the game came from some sweet running which led to hooker Corey Flynn scoring in the corner. Italy had huffed and puffed but when it came to playing the rugby these All Blacks, whether first-choice or reserve, were a yard ahead in pace and thought.
Once Italy have gained possession they play like a slower version of England, if that is possible. The domestic form of Gower, like Northampton's Shane Geraghty, has deserted him. The Bayonne-based ex-Australian rugby league international struggled.
Italy's problems remain the same old ones. How to find backs able to reward a competitive set of forwards. Nick Mallett, Berbizier's successor, has scoured the world looking for qualified players.
He has been helped by the blessing of the Italian Federation in tolerating a growing number of overseas qualified players. Saturday's starting line up was truly mixed up of six home-reared men and the rest from Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand or Australia.
Mallett has never made any excuses for his policy. His job is to take a competitive Italian team to the next World Cup. He has also dabbled in Italian rugby politics but he would be better advised to stick to the rugby.
His recruitment policies have not pleased every Italian rugby follower. They want to see more the like of Tito Tebaldi from Parma rather than Gower of Penrith, NSW. Mallett should borrow a favourite phrase from Martin Johnson who has often described England's injury-ridden autumn as "it's where we are at."
The former Springbok coach is far too urbane for something as direct as that. He tried his best last week to explain to an excited Italian media that, despite playing the All Black reserves, his team remained outsiders.
He was proved right. As for those Italian fans, a few thousand remained behind at the San Siro to watch the non-playing All Blacks train. Will the love affair ever end?