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21st February 2024

Why European rugby must not forget Italy

Italy’s narrow loss to England in the Six Nations was a reminder that it has the potential to compete with the very best in rugby
Why European rugby must not forget Italy
Italy has lost its past 30 games at Stadio Olimpico, Rome: Alexdevil @ Wikimedia Commons.

Italy’s impressive performance in their 24-27 loss to England on the opening weekend of the 2024 Six Nations was a welcome surprise for rugby fans.

Nevertheless, it marked the 30th consecutive game the Italians have lost at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, a run stretching back to their defeat against Ireland in March 2013. In fact, they have won only one Six Nations game since 2015, a one-point victory in Cardiff in 2022.

Every time February comes around, there are discussions about whether Italy deserves to retain its place in the premier Northern Hemisphere tournament. Suggestions have included the introduction of promotion and relegation within the Rugby Europe Championship, the replacement of Italy with Georgia or Romania or a return to the pre-2000 Five Nations.

However, in spite of their record that leaves a lot to be desired (18 wooden spoons in 24 appearances), there are several reasons why the championship should persist with Italy, who also have two representatives in the United Rugby Championship.

Most importantly, participation in the Six Nations allows the game of rugby to grow within Italy. Despite there being more than 500 clubs affiliated with the FIR (Federazione Italiana Rugby), the vast majority are concentrated in the North and North-East of the country. The two regions of Lombardy and Veneto alone are home to 167 of them.

This has meant many of the Italian players come from a handful of Northern cities. Indeed, there are just 80,000 registered players in Italy, half the number as in Ireland despite having a population eight times greater.

Leaving the Six Nations would be catastrophic for Italian rugby. 95% of the FIR’s budget comes from the tournament, of which 40% is invested into the grassroots game. This investment has been evidenced by strong performances by the U20 and U18 national teams in recent years.

However, a weak domestic game has led many younger players to move abroad. In fact, the FIR’s technical director Daniele Pacini admitted as many as 40% of players aged 13 to 17 have been lost in recent years.

Italian rugby must be supported in order to ensure it can continue to close the gap to other European nations. Participation in the premier Northern Hemisphere tournament should be considered a necessity for this.

Italy vs Wales in 2013, the Six Nations in which the Italians won at least two games: Simone Ramella @ Wikimedia Commons.

Italian success will also have knock-on effects for other smaller European countries. The 2023 World Cup in France was notable for the impressive performances of Portugal in just their second appearance. Losing by a respectable 20 points to both Wales and Australia, they then produced one of the shocks of the tournament to beat Fiji in their final pool stage game.

Georgia and Romania have also enjoyed success in recent years. Meanwhile Spain’s team is quietly improving, and they currently sit 19th in the world rankings. This is proof that the game of rugby is becoming more popular away from its traditional heartlands, although perhaps at a slower pace than some would like.

One of the problems smaller nations face is their lack of games against the best sides of the world. For example, Georgia has played just 24 games against Six Nations teams in their history, seven of which were at World Cups, while Portugal is yet to face England, France or Ireland in a representative match.

Whilst the expansion of the World Cup to 24 teams for 2027 will have some impact on this front, the new biennial international tournament announced late last year by World Rugby was seen as a step backwards.

Italy being removed from the Six Nations, or being forced to play fewer matches against SANZAAR teams, would be damaging for these smaller nations, who would view it as a further step towards a two-tiered sport with no possibility of movement.

Finally, a competitive Italy can only be beneficial to England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, who often struggle to beat their Southern Hemisphere counterparts. England’s 51% win rate against Australia is the only winning record that any of these five nations has against the Wallabies, New Zealand or South Africa.

Scotland has never managed to beat New Zealand, Wales has lost its past 33, while even six-time World Cup semi-finalists France has lost 14 of its past 16 against the All Blacks. England, meanwhile, has won just two of its past 18 encounters with New Zealand, and four of its past 21 against South Africa.

What good, for example, does a 60-7 win against the Italians do for France, as was the result in the 2023 World Cup? An additional game against similar-matched opposition would be better preparation for when it matters most.

As a result, European rugby, and European fans, must continue to support Italy through its recent barren run. A successful Italy will not only be beneficial for the other Six Nations teams but also smaller countries aspiring to grow their own domestic game, such as Spain and Portugal.

Italy has proven it can consistently beat the other European powerhouses – let us not forget its impressive wins against Ireland (three times), France and Scotland in advance of joining the Five Nations in 2000. There is no reason why it cannot do this again.

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