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Van Esbeck: Italy Strive To Emulate France

Van Esbeck: Italy Strive To Emulate France

As Italy begin their seventh season in the 6 Nations Championship, respected rugby writer Edmund Van Esbeck reflects on the Azzurri’s past encounters and future aspirations.

…The Italian squad line up for the anthems at Lansdowne Road in 2004. Ireland won that day, 19-3, thanks to tries from Malcolm O’Kelly, Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan…

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This season will be the seventh for Italy to participate in the 6 Nations Championship having joined in 2000 – thus increasing the annual series that had stood at five since France rejoined the Championship in 1947, after their years in the wilderness during the 1930s.

While the Italians have secured some notable victories in the last six years, in the main, the going has been hard. Yet no one will deny that they are a most notable addition to the annual series. Not alone has it broadened their experience at a high level but also the game in Europe. Then, of course, there is the considerable attraction of a visit to Rome every two years for the supporters from the other countries.

Italy’s admission to the Championship, with Ireland’s support, was a reward for persistance after initial rejection. It was unfortunate that their admission coincided with the departure of some of their best players.

Ireland won the inaugural international against Italy in December 1988 at Lansdowne Road on a scoreline of 31-15. The Italians, however, then built a very formidable side in the 1990s and Ireland lost three matches in a row against them. Italy won 22-12 in Treviso in a pre-World Cup warm-up match in 1995, Ireland lost at Lansdowne Road, 37-29 in 1997, and again December 1997, lost 37-22 in Bologna. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that Denis Hickie, Reggie Corrigan and Malcolm O’Kelly all played in that match in Bologna.

Then in 1999 at Lansdowne Road, Ireland beat Italy 39-30 and, since then, it has been one-way traffic, so to speak, between the countries. Having reversed the trend in 1999 just before Italy’s advent to the 6 Nations, Ireland will be defending their 100% record against the Italians in the series on Saturday. It is a measure of Italy’s strength in the 1990s that in addition to those wins over Ireland, they beat France and Scotland and gave Wales a few very stern examinations. Bearing in mind those excellent results, Italy’s admission to the 6 Nations was fully justified.

Memory is still sharp of what happened in Italy’s first match in the 6 Nations series. The match was played on the same afternoon that Ireland played England at Twickenham. When the result of Italy’s match against Scotland in Rome was announced at Twickenham, there was, initially, what one might describe as a very audible gasp and then a great cheer when the scoreline of Italy 34 Scotland 20 came over the loudspeaker system.

We all wondered if a new power had emerged on the Championship scene. It did not work out that way, yet the Italians subsequently beat Wales and Scotland again in the series.

It was at Under-21 level that Ireland first played the Italians and it is a matter of historical record that it was also Ireland’s first international at Under-21 level. That match took place at Lansdowne Road on September 28, 1988. Ireland won 22-13. Four of that Ireland side went on to win full caps – Nicky Barry, Allan Clarke, Paddy Johns and Paul Hogan. That Under-21 match came well before an annual Championship was inaugurated at Under-21 level and at a time when some of the other nations were reluctant to field U-21 teams.

France was the first of the Championship countries to play Italy at senior level and the inaugural match took place in 1937. At that time France was excluded from the annual series having been banned in 1932. It was the French, too, who kept the connection going with Italy through the years.

Now as the Italians seek to make a really effective impact in the Championship they can look to France for inspiration and encouragement and learn from the problems France had in their early days in what was the Five Nations Championship. While France played England, Ireland and Wales in the first decade of the 20th century, it was not until 1910 that they entered the Championship, playing all four countries in that season for the first time, when Scotland was added to their itinerary.

Just like the Italians, it was against Scotland that France won for the first time in the Championship – beating the Scots 16-15 in Paris in 1911. Their first win against Ireland was attained in 1920 and in Dublin at that, 15-7. Their initial wins over England and Wales came in 1927 and 1928. The French did not participate in the Championship from 1931 until it resumed after the second World War in 1947. The French had been dismissed amid allegations of foul play and professionalism.

But from the moment they re-entered the fray they were a powerful force, and it was in 1959 that they won the Championship for the first time. Since then, Championships and Grand Slams have come their way and they have twice reached the final of the World Cup. They have played some exhilarating rugby and produced some of the game’s greatest players.

So now as the Italians set out yet again on the Championship trail, they have found, and will find, that while the road to the summit has many obstacles, it is not unattainable – as the French proved so conclusively after their many setbacks and disappointments.