Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
# Azzurri
Letter from Rome: A city alive to the joy of Six Nations rugby
Our man in the Italian capital checks in ahead of the opening weekend of the Six Nations.

Murray Kinsella reports from Rome

FIFTEEN YEARS INTO its Six Nations history, has Italy in its entirety become a rugby-loving nation?

Anecdotal evidence would suggest not, as I was told on a number of occasions this evening that rugby is a “game of the north.”

“In Rome, we love our football,” I was reminded by many of the locals.

General view of the Ireland captain run at the Stadio Olimpico James Crombie / INPHO Stadio Olimpico is likely to be packed to the rafters on Saturday afternoon. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

A quick glance at the location of Italy’s two professional Pro12 clubs would suggest those isolated opinions reflect the truth, the cities of Treviso and Parma [where Zebre play] sitting less than three hours apart in the north of the country.

Of the 10-team domestic league, the Campionato Nazionale Eccellenza, seven of the competitors reside in the northern part of the nation. Rome-based Fiamme Oro are doing the capital city proud in fourth position, but Lazio and the nearby L’Aquila languish at the bottom of the table.

Rome is a city of football, they’ve underlined, and it would be hard to dispute that but for the fact that more than 70,000 people will pack into Stadio Olimpico on Saturday to see the Azzurri host the reigning champions of the Six Nations.

Certainly, the football clubs Lazio and Roma will continue to dominate the sporting consciousness of the city and much of Saturday’s crowd will have travelled, but it’s fair to say that Rome has an ever-increasing appetite for the oval ball game.

The old Stadio Flaminio seems a distant and cramped memory, although it’s worth recalling that the FIR [Federazione Italiana Rugby] briefly considered a move north to Florence before temporarily and happily relocating to Stadio Olimpico for the 2012 tournament.

Italy team celebrate after the match Gonzalo Canale Sergio Parisse Paul edward Derbyshire and Michele Rizzo Billy Stickland / INPHO Italy celebrate one of their great days at Stadio Olimpico. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

When Ireland visited in 2013, a stunning crowd of 74,174 crammed into the venue to witness one of the dark days of Declan Kidney’s reign, and Saturday’s hordes will be praying for the same.

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Landing into Fiumicino airport today, the sight of rain-drenched surrounds confirmed reports that the city and area has been hit by bad weather all week, but some experts say conditions will have dried out in time for Saturday’s encounter.

That would be a welcome development, as one senses that Jacques Brunel’s men would love nothing better than to drag Ireland into an attritional, restricted battle. For all the Frenchman’s desire to expand Italy’s style of play, their traditional strengths remain.

That 2013 victory did a world of good for Rome’s attitude towards rugby and a repeat outcome would be gleefully greeted. It’s an utterly changed Ireland camp that arrives this time around, however, and the impression is that Italy haven’t truly progressed.

A record of five defeats from five in last year’s Six Nations simply wasn’t of the sufficient standard [albeit the Italians had only two home games] and Brunel needs to see rapid improvement as he builds towards the World Cup, his final hurrah as Italy coach.

The former Perpignan boss is likely to return to the French club game thereafter, but where will Italian club rugby be standing when he checks out? The impression is that things have gone backwards in that regard.

General view of the Stadio Olimpico James Crombie / INPHO Stadio Olimpico awaits. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Treviso lost a raft of international players last summer and Zebre remain minnows; that pair’s status as the bottom two clubs in the Pro12 has been well-earned. The FIR has been mismanaging everything underneath those professional set-ups for some time.

Investment in a reinvigorated academy system has been welcome, but the fruits of that move may not be seen for a decade. For now, all Italian rugby eyes are on the national team and how they perform in Rome this weekend.

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland and their arriving supporters from Castleisland and Monivea and Banbridge and Kilkenny will be doing their utmost to ensure that the Roman audience is left distinctly unimpressed.

Even still, they’re likely to keep on coming back for more. Forget about the problems, Rome is awake to the magic of the Six Nations.

- This article was updated at 9.40 on Friday 6 February to correct spelling errors and to include the word ‘temporarily’ in the seventh paragraph.

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