With much joy I can say: “I was there” when Italy beat Scotland 34-20 in their inaugural Six Nations match. There was very little rugby played and yet history made it a thriller. For one day in time Rome became a rugby city.
Yet where are Italy now? Have they really progressed? They certainly do not have a pair of half backs to match the magnificent Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez. Ian McGeechan probably still wakes up screaming at night at the memory of the 29 points that Dominguez nudged over on that blue Saturday in 2000.
But the Italians haven’t given too many other coaches sleepless nights in the intervening years. Yes, they beat Marc Lievremont’s France last year, but then so did Tonga. France could lose to anyone on their day.
Italy have done well enough against Scotland down the years and there are a couple of victories over Wales, but fourth remains their highest placing in the Six Nations. They have never beaten England or Ireland in the competition.
So do they still deserve the chance? My heart says ‘yes’ because a weekend in Rome, coffee near the Spanish Steps, dinner in Otello’s, remains one of the great Six Nations experiences. And when the Stadio Flaminio, that grotesque concrete gargoyle in the middle of nowhere, gets rocking, you can’t help but bob up and down with the crowd.
But my head is starting to doubt. France also beat Scotland early on in their full international acceptance period, but then they brought so much more. France invented the first national club championship. They were banished for professionalism. Back they came and became the first nation to win a series in South Africa, inventing the lineout peel along the way.
The Parisian crowds were hilarious, still are, chanting “demission, demission” – resign, resign – at their own selectors. Stade de France is situated in a wretched place, yet it hums with the joy and outrage of the French nation.
Italy is still rather peripheral. The new coach Jacques Brunel has brought an 18-year-old, a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old into the squad, but is Italy doomed to be eternally building for the future? In Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse they have two colossi who would get into any Six nation teams, but two players do not make a team.
I am too romantic to really want Italy’s banishment but, if they do not improve, maybe Canada or Japan should be considered. The travel would be too much for many, but the commercial opportunities that Japan bring would be huge.
The Azurri still have a place in our hearts, but the world is shrinking. If South Africa can play in the same tournament as Argentina and New Zealand and all the travel that entails, then maybe we should consider rotating Italy, Japan, Canada and the USA in the Six Nations. Or could there be promotion and relegation from a European division two including the likes of Georgia, Russia and Romania. Forza Italia, but not for long.