The RBS Six Nations rugby championship wooden spoon decider at Rome’s Olympic Stadium will be “too close to call” on Saturday according to according to a top professional player with a foot in both camps.
What’s more, George Biagi, a 25-year-old second-row with the Aironi side that last weekend defeated Munster in the Rabo Direct Pro 12 League to move within one win of leapfrogging Edinburgh at the foot of the table, insists he “can’t lose” in the concluding round of the Championship having grown up in Scotland and attended Fettes College before the family moved back to Italy.
“I suppose when it comes down to it, I’ll be better pleased if my Aironi colleagues return to the club successful after this weekend but it is going to be an extremely difficult game for both teams with home advantage maybe just shading the odds in favour of Italy,” says Biagi.
“As a professional player, I know what a slow process it can be trying to build the rugby profile in a football-mad country like Italy without the same amount of money to invest.
“In that respect, a victory for Italy would help but I must admit if Scotland were to offer me a foot on the representative ladder I’d think seriously about it because, as well as having been born in Irvine, I have a lot of family who love to share in a bit of banter over the outcome of this fixture every season.”
Biagi’s story is remarkable in that he had never played rugby until aged 13.
At Fettes College he was encouraged by teachers such as Bruce Russell, Duncan Harrison and Paul Kesterton to try all sports but, initially, it seems rugby did not come particularly naturally.
“They stuck me out on the wing where I could do the least amount of damage at first which seems quite hard to square with my size nowadays,” says Biagi who has built up into a sturdy 6ft 5in and 18st 1lb.
Added the man whose father ran an ice cream business in Ayrshire and whose uncle, Willie Gibson, is an SNP councillor: “The more I played at Fettes the more I enjoyed rugby to the extent that when we returned to Italy for university after my schooling ended it was natural to find a club and continue.
“I joined Prato [near Florence] and we were successful enough to win the league below the Top Ten. Once the team were promoted to the higher level, I was offered a contract by Aironi when they were set up to enter the Celtic League.
“Things just kept going forward and while my first pro season was difficult, the World Cup opened up opportunities for lads on the fringes like me.”
Altogether Biagi has made 19 league appearances and three more in the Heineken European Cup against the likes of Clermont Auvergne and Ulster.
That Euro campaign saw him understudy current Italian second-row pair Quintin Geldenhuys and Marco Bortolami while winger Gio Venditti and full-back Andrea Masi are also included in the Azzurri’s starting line-up against Scotland.
Of that quartet, Masi stands out as a particular danger having previously scored a try against Scotland at Murrayfield and partly on the back of another try when France were beaten in Rome which helped earn him the 2011 “Six Nations player of the tournament” accolade.
Such skills have not gone unnoticed by Biagi, who warns: “Andrea joined Aironi after the World Cup and immediately demonstrated what a tough competitor he is. I expect him to make a very big impact against Scotland on Saturday.
“Fortunately, at Aironi, we are learning to win without the Italian contingent, as shown by victory over Munster, but it will be good to get them back for the remainder of the season. We had a couple of narrow defeats against Dragons and Leinster before the breakthrough came and that has maybe sent a positive signal to the Italian squad.
“Mind you, Scotland have been going close themselves without quite being cold blooded enough and it hasn’t escaped anybody’s notice how well they played against England and France in particular which adds to the feeling in Italy that it is going to be extremely close on Saturday.”