Rugby Union: Famous Five invite an elated Italy to the club

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Italy will make their long-awaited quantum leap into top-level tournament rugby when they participate in the first Six Nations' Championship at the turn of the century. Not before time, says Chris Hewett.

One of rugby's few remaining gentlemen's clubs finally dragged itself into the late 20th century yesterday by throwing open its doors to the outside world. The Famous Five - England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - will become the Super Six when Italy, patronised for the best part of a decade, play their first international championship game, almost certainly in the year 2000.

Alan Hosie, chairman of the Five Nations' Championship, yesterday confirmed plans to extend the competition as soon as practicable after the 1999 World Cup. For Giancarlo Dondi, president of the Italian Rugby Federation, the development was only marginally less momentous than Julius Caesar's subjugation of the Britons.

"This is a dream that, only a few years ago, we would never have thought could come true," he said. "It's down to the results we have achieved and it is a recognition of the great deal of hard work we have put into reaching the right standard. It can only be a source of joy and honour."

Dondi reported booming interest in the game, especially in the rugby stronghold of northern Italy. "We're growing rapidly," he said. "We have 35,000 registered players and we're making a great effort in our schools. I'm not saying we can compete with the great nations but leaving aside the top five - England, France and the three big southern hemisphere nations - we are on a par with the others."

Only last season, the Italians beat Ireland in Dublin and took the Scots to within seven points at Murrayfield. They also came within a hair's breadth of turning over the Welsh in Rome and they are no longer fazed by visits from such luminaries as the Wallabies and the Springboks, whom they play in Bologna this weekend.

By way of breaking down more obsolete barriers, there was also news yesterday of rugby's likely return to the Olympic family. The International Board spokesman Peter McMullan confirmed that the governing body was hopeful of putting in an appearance at the 2004 Games in Athens.

The ball is now in the court of the International Olympic Committee, which gave the sport the heave-ho from the Games after the United States beat France in the 1924 final.

With a World Cup scheduled every four years and the World Sevens on a similar time loop, it is difficult to imagine any Olympics occupying a high position on the leading nations' growing list of priorities. There is, however, a powerful faction inside the IB determined to restore rugby's place in the Olympics.