Italy come of age
February 5, 2013
It was a great win for Italy against France, but now they have to build on it © Getty Images
Italy's win against France in front 50,000 faithful fans at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome was a milestone for Italian rugby.
There can be no doubt about that. It has a far more significance than their first Six Nations triumph over the same opposition that they recorded under Nick Mallett's guidance two years ago. That was a win that made history but the one secured by Sergio Parisse and his team-mates last weekend was a statement. After thirteen fruitless Six Nations, the Azzurri are finally a Championship side. They now have the potential to beat anyone in the tournament.
After their shock 22-21 loss in 2011, France landed in Rome fully aware of what was needed to beat Italy. They chose the best team possible at their disposal with a view to playing what was supposed to be the best rugby for the occasion.
Yet they lost, again. Philippe Saint André opted for continuity as he retained the bulk of the team that outclassed and outmuscled Australia, Argentina and Samoa in November to climb to fourth place in the International Rugby Board rankings. But they could not cope with the new attacking mentality that greeted them in Rome that was created by former France assistant Jacques Brunel, who is now at the helm of the Roman Empire.
France did not succumb to a selfish attitude this time. They succumbed to the audacious Italian approach that Brunel has asked of his players since he first stepped into the Italian dressing room. But the Frenchman's contribution is not the sole reason the Azzurri have been propelled to these unusual heights.
There is still a lot of Mallett's influence evident in this team's spirit and the Italian Rugby Federation's (FIR) desire to enter the RaboDirect Pro12 three seasons ago, has made an equally huge contribution to the national side's success. The four-year tenure of former Springboks coach Mallett gave Italy a solid and fierce defensive system that Brunel is using at the base of their new offensive mentality. The FIR's role in this process is also substantial because thanks to the PRO12 inclusion, Italian players started to get used to the level required in Test rugby as they were playing against some of the world's best teams and players on a weekly basis, and now, after three apparently profitless seasons, they are starting to take advantage of that experience.
Exposure to the best in Europe via the (often humiliating) pool stages of the Heineken Cup for the members of the Azzurri - the FIR opted to marry up with the Celts, and that has brought us to where we are now. The Stadio Olimpico is now for the Azzurri what the Coliseum was for the gladiators.
The win against France granted rugby unprecedented coverage from the media. Every newspaper, even the more soccer-centric ones, had the news of Italy's triumph on their front pages. Televisions, normally focused solely on the Pirlo's and Totti's of Serie A, discovered rugby and brought the message to the masses. I am curious to see just how big an increase there will be in the television figures for Saturday's match against Scotland and what the attendance of the Stadio Olimpico will be for the Wales and Ireland encounters.
On the touch line is Brunel - the brain and the arm of this 'revolution'. Former FIR supremo Giancarlo Dondi, the man that did more than anyone to inspire rugby-mania in the country, backed Brunel and for that he should be granted a statue on the pavements leading to the Olimpico. Brunel's approach is based on self-confidence and he has unwavering belief in every single component of the Italian squad that in turn fuels those players that have matured on the domestic stage.
He chose young players such as Giovanbattista Venditti (the one and only power winger Italy has ever had), Tommaso Iannone and Francesco Minto and stuck with them. He inspired Edoardo Gori and put his faith in Luciano Orquera. But most of all he gave Italy a new creative mentality and this has paid dividends for Sergio Parrise - the masterpiece of Italian rugby is finally no longer obliged to carry the team for the whole of the game in a creative way, and this means his overall play is improving.
Less involvement means a renewed freshness for Parisse so when the team asks his support he is now far more damaging when he attacks the line, ball in hand. He is a world class player and he now has the chance to show it even more.
It is important for Italy that they can show in Murrayfield that it is finally the Sixth Nation for real and that they can deliver against every other team in the Championship. A win in Scotland may create unimagined scenes. 'At my signal, unleash hell.'
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa
England broke their losing streak, but this was not them clawing their way back among the best, writes Tom Hamilton
Wales were just 13 minutes from a famous victory, but the lessons to be learned in defeat are almost exactly the same as those from previous near-misses, writes Huw Richards
Ahead of England's clash with Samoa, Scrum Sevens takes a wander down memory lane and celebrates seven examples of Pacific Islands magic