NOT many players in the game’s history get to announce the exact date and place of their retirement from Test rugby two months in advance but that is the honour afforded to Sergio Parisse by the Italian Federation.
Mr Italian Rugby, injury permitting, will play in Italy’s two home games at the forthcoming Six Nations, against Scotland on February 22 and England on March 14, but will take no part, on the pitch, in their three away matches.
It’s an unusual arrangement but the bottom line is that after 18 year’s national service Italy’s totem player has probably earned the right to say arrivderci in a manner of his choosing. In an ideal world he would have bowed out in Italy’s final World Cup pool game against New Zealand but typhoon Hagabis scuppered that.
The old adage in rugby, indeed sport in general, is that nobody is bigger than the team but that is not entirely true with Parisse. For over a decade – in his pomp – he was the team, he was the franchise. I reckon between about 2003 and 2015 there was scarcely a Test in which he wasn’t Italy’s MOM.
And many times in defeat he was actually the MOM of the entire game – the best player on the park – although tradition dictates that must normally go to a member of the winning side
The absolute wonder of Parisse is that he managed to reel off countless world class performances in a badly struggling side under the cosh consisting mainly of journeymen and honest toilers.
If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs… againmsty Englandthen you are indeed a remarkable individual and rugby player. It’s sobering to think that not once has he started a Six Nations match in a side tipped to win.
If by some strange alchemy you could have parachuted Parisse into the All Blacks team of that era we might well be talking about the greatest forward the game has ever seen.
The prospect of him combining week in week out with players of almost equal stature and ability would have been sublime, the tries he would have created incalculable.
It is natural therefore for Italy – and us – to celebrate that in some way but the deal struck with new head coach Franco Smith is not without its challenges.
It has been evident for a while that Parisse – unsurprisingly given his marathon stint and various niggling injuries in recent years – has been struggling to make the impact he once did and, dare one say it, compromise an otherwise excellent Italian backrow.
Jake Polledri is world class and very quick, he needs a mobile No.8 supporting and feeding him and Braam Steyn pretty much fits that bill.
Seb Negri, a hard-running, hard-hitting blindside, is another of that ilk and that trio working together can cause almost any side in the world some serious problems. They are a beacon of hope for Italy.
Barring injuries that is the trio that will start in both of their opening games in a brutal start – Wales and France away – and it could be one of them needs a breather by the third round of games. However if Italy go tolerably well and start building something good, the Scotland game at home is surely the match above all others they will be targeting and wanting to field their strongest side.
Tricky, although of course the emotional lift of Parisse returning to action and the crowd paying homage must also be taken in consideration. Coming off the bench might be an option although I can’t imagine Italian fans travelling from far and wide would be happy with that. Let’s see how it pans out.
Certainly that final home game against England should look after itself.
Italy, we can assume, will have nothing to play for but pride and the final ever Test appearance of their great leader will be a massive gala occasion.
England, of course, will be hoping to be in contention for championship honours which will further add to the occasion.
It’s all going to take a little finessing and if Smith is wise the greatest benefit of having Parisse on board for the tournament will be as an advisor, mentor and quasi assistant coach for the seven week period.
In particular Parisse can be of assistance to whoever Smith nominates as captain. Steyn is the favourite but my choice would be Negri.
Italian rugby is again in transition with yet another coach tasked with working the miracle and making them truly competitive and Parisse – surely a future Italy coach whenever the timing is right – can provide some comforting short term continuity.
Whatever the case we should enjoy Parisse while we can and for British fans who want to say farewell, we can safely assume that the Barbarians will at some stage ask him to captain them in one of their gala matches this year.
Meanwhile Toulon are beginning to get their act together again in the Top 14 – this could be quite a lengthy farewell tour for the Great Man.