Fabio Contissa on Italy’s lack of success in rugby
The saying “it’s your own time that you’re wasting” reverberates around the heads of many rugby union fans when they watch Italy plunder their way around the field in the Six Nations. Year in, year out, the Italians find themselves consistently at the bottom of the Six Nations, as it’s as sure as night follows day. Head coach Conor O’Shea is likely to preside over three consecutive Six Nations without a single victory. Italy’s last competitive win in the tournament came back in 2015 against Scotland – how on earth does that represent progress?
Last month, Italy played host to Wales in front of a crowd of 38,000 at the Stadio Olimpico – half of whom were Welsh – and that wasn’t even the most worrying aspect about that afternoon. It was the fact that the Wales head coach Warren Gatland only saw it fit to name a second-string team to play the Italians. Worse still, that second XI comfortably cruised past the Azzurri with plenty left in the tank. Applauded off the field by the home crowd, the Italians celebrated the achievement of only losing by 11 points (26-15). With such low expectations, this is enough to suggest that Italy no longer has a place in rugby union’s most competitive tournament for Northern Hemisphere nations?
The chasm between the likes of England and Italy
The sheer fact that most bookmakers have looked at their Six Nations odds and given Italy a 35.5-point head start on the handicap in their 9th March clash with England suggests that the English are (allegedly) seven converted tries better off than their Italian counterparts — before a ball has even been kicked. Even in the days of Lewis Moody, Italy regularly brushed aside with such comprehensive score lines, so it’s nothing new to the Six Nations. The Italian Rugby Federation can be in no doubt that these are quite uncertain times for the future of Italian rugby, as the nation suffered 33 losses in their last 34 competitive games against tier-one opposition.
Would promotion and relegation solve the problem?
There is an argument to suggest that promotion and relegation should be introduced to the Six Nations, linking the event with the Europe Championship, the leading Northern Hemisphere rugby tournament outside the Six Nations. At the least, the winner of the Europe Championship should be given the chance of a playoff with the bottom side in the Six Nations to try and win a place in next year’s tournament. If anything, it might add an element of competition for Italy to try and stave off relegation each year.
In 2018, the Georgian national team trained with the England squad, as England head coach Eddie Jones wanted to test his side’s scrum against the “biggest, ugliest, strongest scrum pack in the world.” Two of Jones’ close rugby allies, Milton Haig and Richard Graham, coach Georgia and have made significant strides with the Georgian rugby team in recent months. Georgia is hotly-tipped to retain the Rugby Europe Championship in 2019, having won all three of their opening fixtures, conceding only 25 points in the process. A face-off between Georgia and Italy would seem only fair given that elements of Georgia’s team deem highly competitive in the eyes of England’s Eddie Jones.
It seems almost counterproductive to continue to dismiss the idea of promotion and relegation in the Six Nations. However, if nations cannot develop and progress, they lose the crucial element of competition in their sport. Interestingly, the two nations faced-off in a friendly back in November, with the Italians edging the Georgians out 28-17 at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Whether this performance was enough to boost their case for continued inclusion in the 2020 Six Nations remains unknown.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Italian rugby?
There’s only one reason why the Six Nations should think about persisting with Italy in its premier competition – it’s the Under-20s side, as the next generation of Italian rugby players looks like a promising crop. Under the guidance of former Italian star Alessandro Troncon, the Under-20s came within a whisker of defeating their Irish counterparts last year. Some of the Italian club sides in the Pro14 also show signs of life, having been previously rooted to the bottom of their respective tables. Whether Italy has seriously developed a power shift in rugby to leave the likes of England and Wales weak at their knees remains unknown.
Fabio Contissa is a freelance writer with an extensive knowledge of sport, restaurants and fine dining.
Photo (top): The Stadio Flaminio: Italy’s former Six Nations home. By Sergio D’Afflitto.