Rugby Union: Italians can add a dash of style

Paul Trow finds that a trip to Rome will be hard for players but great for the fans

IT'S just as well that rugby folk are getting used to changes on an almost daily basis because another one is surely imminent - the switch in Europe from "The Famous Five" to "Now We Are Six".

The decision on whether to admit Italy to the sport's oldest tournament - hitherto known as the Five Nations' Championship - looks like being made at the next meeting of the Rugby Football Union's council on 20 February. Last Friday was hailed as "a great day for Italian rugby" by Giancarlo Dondi, the president of the Italian Federation, after the other four nations laid out the welcome mat for the 1999-2000 Championship.

And with Allan Hosie, the chairman of the Five Nations' committee, cooing about the "new and exciting dimension" which Italy would bring to proceedings, rejection at this stage would be churlish even by the RFU's standards.

A series of impressive results have strengthened Italy's case, and they have two further gilt-edged opportunities over the next three weeks to prove their international mettle - on Saturday when they entertain Scotland in Treviso and on 7 February, the opening day of the 1998 Championship, when they meet Wales in Llanelli.

"I believe we are good enough to play in the European Championship, but we have to win both games to prove we are worthy and make it difficult for the English to turn us down," said the prop and former Italian captain Massimo Cuttitta, who now plays for Harlequins.

"We beat Ireland last month so we ought to have a good chance against Scotland and Wales, but rugby is a strange game. At the end of 1996, we lost narrowly to Wales in Rome and Scotland in Edinburgh, and England thrashed us at Twickenham. Early in 1997, though, we beat Ireland in Dublin and then had a fantastic win over France in Grenoble just after they had clinched the Grand Slam."

Ironically, if Italy had been part of last season's Championship (a fantasy world based on real results), England would have shared the title with France, perhaps even shaded it on points difference, while Scotland and Ireland would have filled the last two places.

If Italy get the green light, they intend to split their home matches between Bologna, where they recently played Ireland, and a 34,000 capacity complex near the Olympic Stadium in Rome. "The game in Italy is improving and becoming more popular. We often get 10,000 spectators for big club games," said the 31-year-old Cuttitta, who grew up with his twin brother, Marcello, an international wing, in South Africa.

"We have a strong squad and a lot of young players are coming up, so the pressure for places is building. But we've only played one-off internationals up to now and even though we've had some good victories they don't mean much on their own."

Michael Lynagh, now plying the twilight of his trade with Saracens after five seasons in Italy from 1991, is in full agreement. "Italians like to play for something significant and the matches would be very well supported if they got in. They are certainly ready for it. They are competitive and they've done everything they can. The decision's nothing to do with me, but I'd put money on them beating at least two of the other countries.

"There's a big rugby tradition at clubs around the Venice area - Padova, Rovigo and Treviso, where I played. Rome and Milan are also quite strong. The internationals in Bologna, which is in the middle of the country, will attract large crowds because everyone from the north and Rome can get there fairly easily. Rome is a bit too far for some people from the north-east to travel to, but it would be great for the visiting fans - a weekend to look forward to, like Paris or Dublin.

"The Italian style of rugby has been influenced by the French - they love to run with the ball. Pierre Villepreux has coached in Italy, and the current national coach, Georges Costes, is French. It really is about time Italy were part of the big picture in world rugby."

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