THERE was a time when Italy were mere makeweights in the Six Nations Championship.
When their occasional victories were celebrated with a sort of startled bemusement by their country’s small rugby community.
That time is long gone. Now, far from just hoping to avoid the Wooden Spoon, the Italians can dream of competing for the title.
If they beat Scotland today, they will end the weekend as one of only two teams in the tournament with a 100 per cent record. They defeated France last week, and Ireland and England, the other winners from the first round of games, play tomorrow in Dublin.
In a fortnight’s time, Wales visit the Stadio Olimpico in Rome – a match the Italians have won in the past. So win this afternoon, and the whole competition opens up for them. And they could hardly hope for a more enticing incentive than a match at the ground where, in 2007, they recorded their first away win in the tournament.
Needless to say, their captain, Sergio Parisse, is not allowing himself to dream of running up three or four wins on the trot. The emphasis, he insisted yesterday, is wholly on winning today.
“Obviously we are very pleased to have started with such a great result,” the No 8 said before the Italians’ training session at Murrayfield. “But the match of last week is already in the past.
“Now we are looking forward to playing Scotland, knowing that the Scots will play with passion in front of a big crowd, with all of the fans behind them. For us, it’s going to be another tough match, a very difficult match for us.
“We have started with a good win. But in the last ten years we’ve only managed to win one match here and there.
“We won two matches in 2007 against Scotland and Wales. So we haven’t done anything unusual. We’ve done nothing yet, just won a single match. For us, yes, that was a great win. But if we have a good result tomorrow, we can expect to have probably the best Six Nations for an Italian team.
“But we can lose this game and make a big deception [disappointment] for everyone who expects Italy to win.
“We are not favourites: no way. We come here very humble, hoping [to] play great rugby and get the result we want at the end of the match.”
The 29-year-old forward has been Italy’s outstanding player over the past few seasons, but today will have to share some of the limelight with Andrea Lo Cicero. The prop, who celebrated his 50th cap in his team’s win at Murrayfield six years ago, will this afternoon become only the second Italian player to make 100 Test appearances, following the former scrum-half and captain Alessandro Troncon.
The Sicilian, now 36, made his debut in 2000, the first season of the Six Nations Championship. He has been written off several times since, but, while his team-mates from that initial campaign are all now cheering on from the sidelines, Lo Cicero remains in the thick of it.
“I still feel great excitement playing for Italy,” he said this week. “It’s a unique emotion. To join the field, face the crowd during the anthem and then to feel the challenge arriving, this is something I will miss very much when I retire.
“Last week against France was the very best day of all. It was perfect: my greatest rugby memory and so good coming late in my career. Now we must concentrate on Scotland and forget that moment. This year’s tournament is still very young.”
Lo Cicero’s retirement from the international arena cannot be far away, but he is sure to have an added spring in his step when he runs on to the field today. And, having toiled away stoically during his national team’s barren years, he is now able to relax that little bit more and enjoy his rugby again.
But for falling out of favour when Nick Mallett was coach, Lo Cicero would have completed his century a couple of years ago. That unhappy time is behind him now, though, and, having played his club rugby with French team Racing Metro for the past six seasons, he is very much on the same wavelength as Italy’s current coach, the Frenchman Jacques Brunel. Given the praise and attention rightly received by the likes of Parisse and Lo Cicero, casual viewers of Italian rugby might think of it as still forward-dominated, as in the days when the pack did all the groundwork and Diego Dominguez kicked all the points. But that time too is long gone: these days, Italy carry a threat in every area.
If they succumb to that threat this afternoon, Scotland will have assumed the Italians’ erstwhile role as perennial also-rans, just there to make up the numbers, like a dull and aged relative only invited to family parties out of a patronising sort of sentiment. With the likes of Parisse and Lo Cicero in the mood to carry off where they left off against the French, it is a fate the home team will have to fight desperately hard to avoid.