Italian rugby has always leaned heavily on France, making 2011’s sensational win all the sweeter, writes Iain Morrison
ITALY will welcome tournament favourites France to the magnificent old amphitheatre that is Rome’s Olympic Stadium this afternoon, hoping for a repeat of the performance that saw the Azzurri record the single most important victory in their history two years ago.
Italy beat the French 22-21 in March 2011. Seven months later, nine of the same starting French XV were contesting the World Cup final. It was a sensational victory for the Italians and came thanks to the boot of Mirco Bergamasco, who slotted three penalties in the final quarter.
If Italy are to repeat those heroics they will need to do so without their first-choice marksman because the younger of the two Bergamasco brothers was injured playing for his club, Racing. He is just one of several Italians who earn their corn in France, underlining the strong ties between the nations.
Racing are one of the oldest clubs in France and they first toured Italy in 1910, playing against a team in Turin.
One year later, the first properly Italian (as opposed to ex-pat) club –US Milanese – was formed and played their first match, against French opposition (obviously).
Veteran prop Andrea Lo Cicero, who was in the 1999 Italian World Cup squad, plays alongside Mirco at Racing. At 36, Lo Cicero is the old man of Italian rugby, and an occasional Unicef ambassador. He is scheduled to win his 100th cap against Scotland next weekend.
No.8 Sergio Parisse struts his stuff for Stade Français. Josh Furno and Gonzalo Canale both turn out in France’s second division (ProD2) for La Rochelle and Narbonne respectively and, if rumours are to be believed, Leicester’s Martin Castrogiovanni will complete a move to big-spending Toulon this summer in search of regular first-team rugby. As far back as 1962, Agen won the French championship with the Italian Franco Zani in the middle of the back row.
On the sidelines, Jacques Brunel and his assistant Philippe Berot are just the latest in a long list of Frenchmen who have coached Italy over the years, including Pierre Berbizier, George Coste, Julien Saby and Bertrand Fourcade. Zebre also have a French coach in the form of Christian Gajan. Meanwhile, the Spanghero brothers (Claude and Walter), born in France to Italian parents, won 73 French caps between them in the 1960s and 1970s with the latter one of the true greats of French rugby.
The links between the two countries were forged in the pre-war era. The first full international match between France and Italy took place back in 1937, a mere 59 years before Scotland accorded Italy that honour. France won that first match just as they have won every other Italy fixture bar two losses – in 1997 (before Italy entered the Six Nations) and that humiliating defeat two years ago in Rome.
After the inevitable suspension of Tests during the Second World War, France started annual fixtures against Italy in 1952. Fifty years ago, in 1963, the Italians were winning 12-6 in Grenoble with just five minutes to play before going down 14-12. Five years later, it was a very different story with France running out 60-13 winners. A try was only worth three points and France scored 11, nine of which were converted by Guy Camberabero (father of Didier). That result persuaded the French to drop the fixture although it was a good era for French rugby as much the same side won their country’s first ever Grand Slam the next year.
That remains the biggest winning margin between the two teams and that record should still stand after today’s game because Italy have become a hard team to beat.
While Scotland conceded 34 points in the opening 40 minutes against New Zealand, Italy held the All Blacks to a respectable 7-13 half-time tally. The previous time that New Zealand faced Italy they were happy to come away from Milan’s San Siro with a 20-6 win and it would have been closer still if Australian referee Stuart Dickinson had had the cojones to award the penalty try that Italy deserved after umpteen collapsed scrums on the All Blacks’ line.
Everyone knows Italy have the power to cause today’s opponents problems up front although not, presumably, at the set scrum, where France are as strong as any side in world rugby. What Italy do not possess is a creative brain in the midfield to make something happen, nor the weapons out wide to get the ball over the line.
Italy have learned almost everything they know about the game at the feet of their near neighbour, with this afternoon’s lesson likely to focus on finishing.
15. A Masi
14. G Venditti
13. T Benvenuti
12. A Sgarbi
11. L McLean
10. L Orquera
9. T Botes
1. A Lo Cicero
2. L Ghiraldini
3. M Castrogiovanni
4. Q Geldenhuys
5. F Minto
6. A Zanni
7. S Favaro
8. S Parisse (capt)
Subs: D Giazzon, A De Marchi, L Cittadini, A Pavanello, P Derbyshire, E Gori, K Burton, G Canale.
15. Y Huget
14. W Fofana
13. M Mermoz
12. F Fritz
11. B Fall
10. F Michalak
9. M Machenaud
1. Y Forestier
2. D Szarzewski
3. N Mas
4. P Pape (capt)
5. Y Maestri
6. F Ouedraogo
7. T Dusautoir
8. L Picamoles
Subs: B Kayser, V Debaty, L Ducalcon, R Taofifenua, D Chouly, M Parra, F Trinh-Duc, M Bastareaud.