This article titled “Six Nations: Italy on the rise and ready to become contenders” was written by Robert Kitson, for guardian.co.uk on Sunday 29th January 2012 23.01 UTC
These are tough economic times but Italian rugby’s stock continues to rise. Last season they beat France and this year they fully expect a crowd of 70,000 to pack the Stadio Olimpico in Rome for England’s eagerly awaited visit in mid-February. Try telling the new, enthusiastic breed of Italian supporter the Azzurri are the poor relations of the European game.
There are even those in high places who will tell you Italy has the biggest potential for growth of any of their Six Nation rivals, regardless of the euro’s fragility. “They have double digit growth every year in terms of playing numbers and interest in the game and income from television contracts has increased significantly,” said John Feehan, the Six Nations chief executive. The funding levels of the two Italian super clubs, Treviso and Aironi, is already attracting envious glances from some of their Premiership rivals.
Look beyond the balance sheet and there are other healthy signs. Sergio Parisse, the inspirational national captain, believes a developing academy structure is beginning to bear fruit and senses a genuine surge in interest, particularly among families turned off by some of football’s excesses. “People are attracted to our sport because the players give their all, they play with passion and they make them proud.
“Our job is to give young Italians the desire to play rugby. Every young guy in Italy has a choice between football, basketball and rugby. Seven out of 10 are going to play soccer, two are going to play basketball and probably one is going to play rugby. We’ve got to inspire more people to come to our sport. That’s our objective.”
All it requires is for the national team to light the blue touchpaper more regularly. The raucously acclaimed French triumph was a considerable step forward and a first victory over England would generate fresh momentum. Could this be the year? “I came to coach Italy because I am sure of its potential,” said Jacques Brunel, the former Perpignan coach who has taken over from Nick Mallett. “I hope I can work with the players to make sure the team goes up another level to be one of the best in the championship. We need to improve the balance of the team and our mental approach. We need to go from being a team which is always fighting to win to becoming a more dominant team.”
There is a lot more to Brunel, 58, than a drooping moustache: the Frenchman served the national side for six years as Bernard Laporte’s forwards coach, despite being a former full-back himself, and guided Perpignan to their first French club title for 54 years in 2009. Those who know him well say he is an excellent man-manager and compare him, rightly or wrongly, to Ireland’s Declan Kidney. He has put his faith in selecting a couple of younger backs in his squad but Italy’s forwards remain their trump card. If the Azzurri can show a little more craft at half‑back, a couple of rousing wins are far from impossible.
A decent performance first up away in France next weekend would clearly help. “The first game is always very important in terms of the rest of the championship,” said Parisse. “We’ve already shown we can be competitive against any team; the next step is to achieve better results and to be Six Nations contenders. We’ve got three matches away and only two at home so it is going to be difficult. But I’m positive we can have a really good tournament. Week by week we’re going to know Jacques better and know how he wants us to play.”
England, either way, will be venturing into uncertain territory when they visit Rome. Stadio Flaminio is an intimate, atmospheric venue but the Olympic Stadium, home of Roma and Lazio, will be something else again, despite the presence of several thousand visitors in belly-hugging replica white shirts. “All the Italian team and public are very excited about that match,” said Parisse. “We like playing in the Stadio Flaminio but playing in front of 70,000 at the Stadio Olimpico is awesome. We have a responsibility to reward the Italian public with a victory. If the national team can get some good results it’s going to benefit Italian rugby as a whole.”
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