THESE ARE interesting times for Italian rugby. The Italian Rugby Federation's (FIR) bold move to host the All Blacks in Milan's 80,000 capacity San Siro has paid off spectacularly, with the event sold out.
Treviso opened their Heineken Cup account with a victory over the French champions Perpignan (pictured inset) and, to cap it all, Italy has bid to host the 2015 and the 2019 World Cups.
But nothing is simple or straightforward in the land of pasta, pesto and Piaggio because beneath the surface Italian rugby is currently undergoing the biggest upheaval since the dawn of professionalism and quite what will be left standing when the aftershocks end is anyone's guess.
Last year, Nick Mallett wrote a report on the state of the game in Italy for his paymasters. In it the national coach argued that the standard of rugby in the country's Super 10 was far too low for players to make the step up to the international game. Italy needed to enter clubs in a foreign league and, with France and England operating a closed shop, the Celtic League was the obvious option.
To facilitate this move, Italy will take the radical step of jettisoning eight of its ten professional teams while the remaining two, Viadana and Treviso, hope to join the Magners League at the start of next season. It's a huge gamble because relying upon just two professional teams has not exactly worked wonders for Scotland's national team. According to Mallett, it would still be a huge improvement on the current Italian set up.
"The top ten in Italy is just not at the required level to produce players for international rugby. France are trying to cut their top 14 to just 12 teams so joining the French just wouldn't work and England was out too.
"Italy has been left behind and the Celtic League (he pronounces the word like the football club) has done a lot of good for Ireland, Wales and even Scotland. Only Scotland were against the move, a little bit of looking after themselves. Italy could improve quite rapidly and put pressure on Scotland whose interest is best served by keeping Italian rugby as low as possible. Scotland may have one purely parochial viewpoint but in the greater scheme of things this move helps the Six Nations and it helps rugby as a whole."
Mallett explains how there is only one Italian qualified flyhalf in the Super 10 (Andrea Marcato) and even he is currently injured, which means that the coach has to pluck Italian/Australian league convert, Craig Gower, from Bayonne in France.
"With two teams in the Celtic League we will have four Italian fly-halfs and by rotating the squad all of them will get regular games. It will take time but in five years time it will be hugely beneficial to the top end of Italian rugby."
Mallett is passionate, smart and wholly focused on his one goal in life, winning test rugby. To him it is blatantly obvious that Italy needs a move into the Magners but everyone outside of Italy is still scratching their head and wondering what on earth the league is hoping to gain from the deal? You don't need the base motives Mallett assigns Scotland to be a sceptic.
The twin Italian teams won't improve the competition any and their meagre support makes Edinburgh look like Manchester United. There is no geographical or cultural affinity with the Celtic nations and the foreign travel will only add overheads while undermining the integrity of the Heineken Cup. The Magners operations manager David Jordan comes up with the only possible explanation, filthy lucre.
"Principally, as a professional competition, we need to identify commercial opportunities and Italy has a market of approximately 60 million people with global brands like Fiat and Peroni that might see the Magners as an attractive proposition. At the moment the combined population of the Magners countries is 13/14 million, with Italy involved that number would be quadrupled."
Leaving aside any altruistic reasons, boosting Italian rugby is not the remit of the Celtic League board, the only benefits that Italian teams bring to the Magners table are commercial opportunities, especially a big-money sponsor that the league has always lacked. But if Jordan thinks rugby is big business in Italy he needs to think again.
Gianluca Barca started Italy's only national rugby magazine AllRugby and he is the TV commentator on the Six Nations matches in his home country. He knows as much about the game as anyone in Italy.
"This all arises from the panic last autumn when we (Italy] lost to the Pacific Islands", he says with a sigh. "Within 20 to 30 days they decided to join the Celtic League. I know that the All Blacks are playing in front of 80,000 but that is a one-off and a lot of non-rugby people are lured by the name. Italy plays South Africa one week later in a tiny place on the Slovenian border called Udine and the 40,000 stadium won't be full. It was the fourth-choice venue because all the soccer stadiums refused to move even third division football matches to accommodate a rugby test.
"Treviso and Viadana between them have a population of less than 100,000 and not one person in Italy could place Viadana on a map. When the two teams played recently there were less than 2,000 people watching and it will be the same with the Magners League. Italy may have a population of 60 million but how many care about a village of 15,000 people like Viadana playing in the Celtic League?"
With his television background Barca is plugged into the media world and he deems it highly unlikely that any channel would pay serious money to broadcast Magners League matches in Italy. There simply isn't the market.
There is hope that the deal can still be stopped because the Celtic League has a get-out clause: it hasn't sent the invite. Jordan explains that no invitation has been proffered to the FIR; instead the Magners Board has simply stated that it will look favourably upon any application received from the FIR to have Italian teams take part in the Magners League.
According to an FIR press release on Friday, application is on its way after Treviso and Viadana were confirmed as the chosen clubs. It will be scrutinised by the consultancy firm Deloitte, which has been hired by the Magners Board to prepare a report on all aspects of the Italian proposition. SRU boss Gordon McKie sounded this warning about pre-empting that report.
"I would be personally concerned if anyone has given the Italians the impression that this is a done deal. There is an evaluation process which is underway by professional consultants and the Celtic board has not even discussed the issue. The Celtic Board needs to agree to the move unanimously for the Italians to be invited to join so I hope the wrong impression has not been given."
It almost certainly has. The FIR views Magners entry as a near certainty and, to prove it, they have already taken huge strides aimed at getting their two teams into shape with all which that entails. Less fortunate clubs have lost sponsors, players have had their wages slashed (by 60 per cent in one instance) and the argument about which teams join the Magners will go all the way to court, with Rome taking legal action against the FIR after they were initially picked only to be overlooked in favour of Treviso.
That is the danger of speed dating. The Celts flashed a bit of leg and the Italian authorities got over-excited, imagining immediate consummation instead of doing much needed wooing. Inviting Italian teams into the Celtic League is a classic square-peg/round-hole situation. If the Celtic Board ultimately decides to send the FIR a "Dear Gian" letter in the coming months as they surely should, it needs to be sensitively written; you know what they say about hell knowing no fury like a federation scorned.
Tough in the short term, but the right thing to do for future success
BARRY IRVING (Overmach Parma)
"Nobody seems to know what is going on. The biggest problem is that all the players have already had to take a pay cut although I think that professional rugby will survive in some form outside of the two Magners teams. This is Italy so there is too much politics involved. The Scottish teams are competitive in the Magners, but it hasn't helped the national side much."
GARRY LAW (Viadana)
"They may struggle for a few years but ultimately I think the move will be a great help to the Italian national team.
My own position is unclear because, by the end of this season, I will have been here three years and will qualify for Italy on residential grounds.
But, while I would listen if they approached me, I'd rather return and play in Scotland."