(Photo: Getty Images)
By Brendan Gallagher
Italy captain Sergio Parisse, who makes his 64th Six Nations start today, is closing in over the coming weeks on a rare personal accolade after a stellar career which has been rewarded with precious few trophies or titles.
Should he come through unscathed today against Wales he will start next week’s match against Scotland just 19 minutes short of the all-time record of minutes played in either the Six Nations or indeed the Championship since it first started in 1883.
Brian O’Driscoll, as is the case with many Six Nations records, is the man who needs toppling. According to official records, O’Driscoll logged 5,074 minutes during his Six Nations career while going into today’s match Parisse is on 4,981. It’s there for the taking and if anybody deserves to be at the top of that particular pile it is the Italy captain.
The hard-hearted will point to just nine wins and a draw in those 63 Six Nations starts, an average of 15 per cent, but when you bear in mind that Italy have started as the underdogs in every single game I would argue it is a pretty decent return. If your local Division Two football club had garnered nine ‘shock’ FA Cup wins over Premiership opposition during that period you would be impressed.
It almost goes without saying that in all but a handful of games – mainly this season – he has been Italy’s best player and in probably half of the games the man of the match, if ever the sponsors were brave enough to give that award to a losing player. For some reason that remains a bit of a no-go area.
Rugby generally acknowledges his greatness but where exactly is Parisse with his career and indeed life right now? Can he make it through to RWC2019 in Japan or might we be witnessing the closing minutes – literally – of an historic career?
He is 34 now and seemingly injury free, although there is just a hint that the legs are beginning to go. He seems very settled and, after an early marriage to Miss Europe 2006 – Alexandra Rosenfield – that failed and made the headlines, he is now happily remarried and a family man.
Parisse is in a good place and manifestly works well with Conor O’Shea even if the results and the margins of defeat are very reminiscent of Italy sides under Jacques Brunel, Nick Mallett, Pierre Berbizier and even John Kirwan from a distant, hopeful past. Yes Parisse goes back that far, he’s been around for ever, Italy’s rally point for nearly 16 years.
Both Parisse and O’Shea insist Italy are making progress but frankly the jury is out on that, the next six days will be the acid test. Two years ago under Jacques Brunel they started the tournament competently enough – in fact they should have beaten France in Paris first up, remember Parisse’s missed dropped goal attempt in the last minute? – but fell away horribly in the final week with a 58-15 defeat in Dublin and a 67-14 annihilation in Cardiff.
The Italians badly need to avoid such a double drubbing this time around or else the groundhog day feeling will return with a vengeance. In fact, two more results like that would be calamitous. For all the talk of development O’Shea, Parisse, Italy and indeed all of us badly need some concrete evidence that Italy have turned a corner and are pointing in the right direction again.
I feel slightly treacherous in suggesting this but henceforth I would play Parisse – without question the greatest No.8 of the professional era along with Kieran Reed – at lock and for all sorts of reasons.
He hasn’t quite got the snap and speed he used to possess at No.8 and that priceless ability to manufacture things even when Italy are up against it. And because he’s not quite covering the ground like he once did we aren’t seeing those fly-half’s hands and passing skill, the ability to make space for others and to ignite attacks. Flashes of genius are still there and bursts of hyper activity but the great man has come down a few notches from his pomp.
He remains, however, a very strong man indeed with a big engine who could easily move up to lock and bolster a faltering Italian front five that has lost its muscle and grunt of yesteryear and frightens nobody anymore. His lineout work remains exemplary, so nothing will be lost in that respect either.
But there is an even more pressing reason for shunting Parisse up and that is to give Seb Negri his head at No.8 sooner rather than later. I’ve seen enough of the Zimbabwe-born, Hartpury educated, back rower from Benetton to know he is the future of Italian rugby, the next totem pole player. He, not Parisse, has been their one go-to man up front in the three Six Nations game to date. Negri has been their best player by some distance.
It’s time to fully unleash his running power from No.8, and the one area Italy do not lack for decent young talent coming through is back row so they have plenty of options. There are a clutch of fine flankers O’Shea can choose from going forward headed by Maxime Mbanda and recent Italy U20 captains Renato Giammarioli and Giovanni Licata, while anybody who has watched the PRO14 this season will know how well Robert Barbieri is still playing.
Many would have already had Negri’s former Hartpury College colleague Jake Polledri starting. Polledri, who also had a year in the Italy U20 team, is regularly a contender for MOM honours in every Premiership match he starts for Gloucester and very few of the Italian squad possess that pedigree. He has been called back into the squad this week but it’s tricky. The others are all home grown products and Italy desperately need to promote such individuals, they have no future unless the domestic pool talent is widened and encouraged. Polledri is perfectly well qualified for Italy but perhaps it is right that local sensitivities be taken into account and the Italian-born and bred players be given an early chance to prove their worth. One suspects there will be plenty of rugby for all concerned in the coming years.
So, in the meantime, I would let Negri take the strain at No.8 and learn his trade while the skipper is still on the pitch alongside him whispering occasional advice. There is going to come a day relatively soon when Parisse is no longer there and it will be important for Italy that Negri steps into the breech without breaking stride, both as a player and possibly skipper. He was an outstanding captain at Hartpury and could be a leader O’Shea is tempted to turn to.
None of this would be an alien concept for O’Shea. In his final years at Quins he asked Nick Easter, another No.8 with great hands and vision, to move into the second row on occasions which he did a tad reluctantly. The move wasn’t a total success but nor was it an abject failure and it did prolong Easter’s career. The way O’Shea talks about Parisse’s influence over the squad it seems important that his playing career is extended a little.
Aside from some real talent jockeying for position in the back row what else have Italy displayed so far in the Six Nations? It’s a very mixed bag and the most pressing deficient would seem to be the lack of power in their once feared front five mentioned earlier – but there have been some comforting moments of real skill and quality behind the scrum which supporters of Italian rugby cling onto.
Diminutive full-back Matteo Minozzi has been the main find, an electric buzz bomb of a player with great pace and agility and, perhaps surprisingly, a commanding presence under the high ball. He’s got a cricketer’s hands when catching and gets up early and hangs in the air almost inviting somebody to come in early with the tackle and concede a penalty.
Minozzi has leapfrogged ahead of Edoardo Padovanni who was arguably the find of last season and is a hot property already being tracked by a number of T14 clubs. Still only 21, he enjoyed two eye popping seasons in the Italy U20 team and one senior season with Calvisano before moving to Zebre this season.
Both creator and finisher Minozzi is doing everything asked of him and more at full-back he has the look of a player who could rip a game to pieces at fly-half. I wonder if Italy will ever be that brave? It would be great fun to watch.
After Minozzi and, of course Negri, you need to start casting around a little. Bearded centre Tomasso Boni was hard running and industrious in the first two matches when he took the eye, but trailed off a tad against Ireland. Centre could be a position of strength for Italy though.
Poised for a comeback hopefully sooner rather than later is Luca Morisi, who looked an exceptional talent three years ago when he scored two tries and made a third against England at Twickenham, but two ACL operations brought his career to a shuddering halt. Exeter Chiefs’ outside-centre Michele Campagnaro is another richly talented individual plagued by injury.
Tomasso Allen has enjoyed a few nice moments – some of his passing is excellent – but still doesn’t exude 80 minute authority. He always looks more like a full-back to these eyes and I suspect we might see him tried there in the summer on tour in Japan.
There are little shafts of light, players that any national squad in Europe would welcome but it’s all so very delicate, the sum of Italy’s parts is not amounting to as much as it should. We have become content with competitive phases of the match, well taken consolation tries and occasional flashes of real talent. Italy need to become that really slippery banana skin they once were.
*This article originally featured in The Rugby Paper’s 11 March 2018 edition. Subscribe:
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