There’s no doubt Sergio Parisse is the greatest rugby player to represent Italy. The No 8’s athleticism and vision have made him a talisman for the side since his debut in 2002 in New Zealand.
Yet a couple of contrasting milestones will mark his appearance today when he captains Italy against Scotland in Rome.
Parisse will equal Brian O’Driscoll’s record of 65 appearances in the Six Nations. And if Italy happen to lose, it will be his 100th Test defeat. Nobody comes close to that figure.
Both numbers underline his durability. And a deep passion for the Azzurri.
“I’m proud of them, and I’m the first who will continue to work, go forwards, encourage them, help them,” Parisse says.
The arrival of Conor O’Shea as Italy coach in 2016 is said to have encouraged Parisse to play on. Parisse has bought into O’Shea’s vision and ambition to improve Italian rugby from the clubs up, and O’Shea has been grateful that Parisse has continued to set the example as a professional and leader.
Rather than be disheartened by Italy’s unrelenting defeats, Parisse has regarded each match as a step closer to the team eventually becoming consistently respected, even feared, like it was in the 1990s.
“I am convinced, as I’ve told them, that all these matches will help them to get experience,” he says. “Because also when I was 18, 19 years old, I was part of a group where there were more experienced players. I wasn’t a captain then, I was just another member of the squad. We lost matches and they helped me improve as a player, to grow, and it’s the same for these lads. Today, at 34 years old, my job is to always be close to them, to be an example to them, and I’m proud, and I say that with all my heart.”
Italy are already guaranteed of finishing last for a third consecutive year but are keen to avoid a whitewash.
The Azzurri’s last victory in the Six Nations came against Scotland in 2015. If they lose today, it will be the 17th defeat in a row, tying the record by France in the 1920s.
“We are here to win, to be competitive in each match,” O’Shea says. “We’re not yet at the level of our opponents, but we’re not far off either.”