Andrea de Rossi, the newly appointed Italian captain, has one of the most unenviable tasks in world rugby. England, the newly-crowned world champions have been looming on their horizon like a thundercloud as they prepare to tackle them in the opening game of their Six Nations campaign tomorrow.
A replacement for Italy's injured leader, Alessandro Troncon, De Rossi plays his club rugby at Calvisano, a little known rural town in the north of Italy, and has developed a reputation as the spearhead of Italy's attacks, driving arrows through enemy defences. He now bears the responsibility of attempting to halt England's stately progress.
"What a game to start the tournament with," he said. "England are the new world champions and are going to be a very tough proposition, they seem to get stronger every game." Pinpointing particular areas of weakness is a futile operation with danger omnipresent. "They have so many strong players in Wilkinson, Robinson, Dallaglio, you can never be safe."
Despite their post-World Cup injury problems, De Rossi dismisses the notion that the England team that steps out at the Stadio Flaminio could be a weakened side. "If anything the fringe players will play better than the others because they are hungrier and more determined to show that they should be in the team," he said. "So I don't see their injuries as being a decisive factor."
Nevertheless the burning ambition of this Italian side will not be doused by a defeatist attitude. "Anything is possible in rugby, with a bit of luck you never know. Playing at home will definitely be an advantage, it is like having a 16th man."
Although he was Italy's vice-captain in the recent World Cup, he maintains being asked to lead the side came as a complete surprise. "We had our first squad get together since the World Cup in Rovato at the beginning of January. Troncon was injured and John Kirwan said that he was looking for a new captain. Although I was vice-captain in the World Cup I still had no idea he was going to ask me. Just as I arrived back home after the two days training I got a call from John. I presumed it was about the testing we had done or something, so you can imagine my surprise when he asked me to be captain.
"Obviously I am sorry for Troncon but these things happen in rugby and I am just grateful to be given this chance and hope to do the best job I can. I am captain of my club side so I am used to the responsibility and am really looking forward to it."
How significant this game will be in the context of Italy's season will become clearer as the tournament progresses. After winning only two games in the Six Nations to date, and being knocked out of the World Cup in the group stages after losing the decisive match against Wales, the Italy captain remains pragmatic about his side's chances in this year's tournament. "Last year our target was to win one game which we did against Wales, this year we would like to try and win two. I think Scotland at home is possible and we would like to beat Wales away," he said. "It's not about revenge for losing to Wales in the World Cup, we want to build on last year, and to register our first away win in the tournament would be a significant achievement and step forward."
Few are predicting anything other than a glorious romp at the expense of the hapless Italians tomorrow, however De Rossi sees a growing and blossoming team worthy of its place in the hotbed of European rugby. "Rugby is improving in Italy. We are closing the gap on the other nations and it is vital that we register good results in this tournament," he said. "Our first get together went very well, the players were enthusiastic and there is clearly a great desire to succeed and to win."
Ambition and desire alone, however, will not suffice to shift the axis of power in European rugby. "What we need is more publicity to help bring people into the game, TV, newspapers, youth sections in the clubs. We are getting there, but it is a hard process."
Nevertheless, he feels the decision not to play the game against England at the Stadio Olimpico, an 80,000 capacity stadium, was the right one. "That stadium was made for football, not rugby. We would never have filled it and I think the atmosphere at a packed Stadio Flaminio will be far better."
It is a long and stony road for Italian rugby, and other problems must be tackled before they can find clearer ground. "The standard of refereeing is very mixed. They need to be better trained and prepared, because at the moment we are relying on enthusiasts rather than true professionals."
In recent years many of Italy's star names have been lured by wealthy clubs abroad and, having been courted by clubs in England and France, De Rossi himself fully supports the idea. "It is a positive thing as the standard of rugby abroad is higher. I have received offers and it would have been wonderful to play in a different country, but I have opted to stay here for family reasons."
Home is Calvisano, a small town with just 5,000 inhabitants where the people live and breathe rugby. He has played there since 2000, moving from his home town of Livorno where he took up the sport as a 13-year-old. "I tried all the sports at school and didn't particularly like any of them. Then a friend of mine told me to come and try 'this sport' as rugby was referred to then and from that moment I was hooked."
His ability was soon recognised and he represented Italy at every level from under-15 through to the senior team where he made his debut in 1999 against England. "I love it here and don't want to go anywhere else," he said. "I have just become a father now which means I have to reassess my priorities, rugby is my job and my passion, but I have a son to think about too. Apart from anything it means I don't get to sleep as much now."
At 31 his hunger to achieve remains as strong as ever. "I desperately want to win the league with Calvisano after losing in the final in the last three years. And then to win two games in the Six Nations with Italy, home and away."
Rich in resilience and abundant in ambition, De Rossi and his men are clearly relishing the challenge and responsibility of leading Italy forward into a new era.
Coach: John Kirwan
Captain: Andrea de Rossi
Assistant coaches: Glen Ella, Grant Doorey, Carlo Orlandi
Fitness coach: Pascal Valentini
Team manager: Marco Bollesan
Ground: Stadio Flaminio (capacity: 24,973)
Anthem: Inno di Mameli
Grand Slam wins: 0
Biggest win: Italy 34 Scotland 20 (2000)
Biggest defeat: Italy 23 England 80 (2001)
ITALIAN MEMORY ALESSANDRO TRONCON (Debut 1994, 83 caps)
Alessandro Troncon is an Italian rugby legend. The first day in Italy's Six-Nations' history has gone down in legend. And Troncon was there.
That day in February 2000, the unfortunate Scots, winners of the last-ever Five Nations' Championship the year before, arrived in Rome unsure of what to expect. Italy's great team of the late '90s, which did so well against England in World Cup qualification, was past its best. The World Cup earlier in the season had produced a 101-point pasting for the Azzurri by the All Blacks. Surely Scotland would win. Surely some mistake. The men in dark blue were bludgeoned and beaten.
Troncon, who has since led his country to a second win, three years later against the Welsh, captained Italy to that 34-20 win over the Scots. "It was the first match for Italy in the Six Nations, I was captain and we won," he says with a grin. "It was the first time we played in Rome and I was surprised at the enthusiasm of the public. The match I don't remember too much about, to be honest, but after it on the pitch, I remember. Afterwards, in the night? No, I can't remember too much about that either. But the team told me about it afterwards."
The win over Wales in 2003 will be fresher in Troncon's mind, and, after an impressive and rather unlucky 2003 World Cup, they'll want to continue their progress. England visit Rome tomorrow: they have been warned.
Martin PengellyReuse content