Six Nations: Mighty Sergio Parisse the man who towers over Italy's failings


Captaining Italy is a job that demands an ability to man-manage an ever-evolving crisis. More often than not when Italy play, Italy lose and it was John Kirwan, the former All Black great and then Italy coach, who once neatly summed up the end-game for the captain as "invariably dealing with the crisis of defeat". It is a fire -fighting role in the Towering Inferno.

Kirwan gave Sergio Parisse his first cap 11 years ago and drew comparisons between the rangy young man and Zinzan Brooke. He knew what he was talking about, as did a later Italy coach Nick Mallett when he took the decision to appoint Parisse his captain five years ago. The South African is another of rugby's coaching globetrotters to have been mightily impressed by Parisse.

The player's return to the Italy side after the reduction of his suspension for swearing at the referee during a game for Stade Français is a huge fillip for the visitors to Twickenham on Sunday. It may not have any bearing on the result – this is an Italian team that does not travel well, as one away win in the Six Nations lays bare – but it will make the outcome more challenging for England in general and their back row and half-backs in particular, and it will certainly lift his team-mates. That is what happens when one of the world's leading players pulls on the shirt, all 6ft 5in of him. It's like Ryan Giggs running out for Wales, or George Best for Northern Ireland, only with more oomph and never a question over his utter commitment.

Parisse will collect his 94th cap at the age of 29. It will be his 41st outing in the Six Nations – and only seven times has he finished on the winning side. The last was in the opening round of this Six Nations when he was at the heart of Italy's victory over France. That was a sit-up-and-take-note triumph, though regular viewers of Italian rugby were soon slouched back on the couch as the team was drubbed in Edinburgh – another false dawn, another crisis of defeat.

Parisse has spent much of his season in crisis management. He captains Stade, too, and the Parisian giants are struggling in the lower reaches of the Top 14. Three weeks ago they beat Bordeaux-Bègles in Paris but finished the game without their captain after he received an abrupt red card for swearing at the referee. Parisse denies having said anything out of line. "It's a big mistake, sir," he yelled in French as he made his way off. "Shitty call," he suggested once he reached the touchline.

A 40-day ban followed – his second major punishment after an eight-week penalty for eye-gouging in New Zealand in 2009 – with 10 of them suspended. On appeal it was reduced to 20 and that runs its course today.

It means Italy have their totem restored for Twickenham, one of seven changes to the side beaten convincingly by Wales two weeks ago. Luciano Orquera, man of the match against France, mug of the match against Scotland, is restored at 10. Five of those changes come in the pack. Forward power was supposed to be Italy's saving grace. But that failed against Wales. Parisse will bring back dynamism even if it has the makings of another lonely afternoon of crisis management for the man born in Argentina.

There is nothing plastic, though, about his nationality – his parents are Italian, his rugby-playing father's work took the family to South America, where his son was born. Parisse grew up speaking Italian at home and has been playing in Italy since he was 17. A year later Kirwan called and sent him out to make his debut against New Zealand. It was the toughest start but it was also the start of something special – this is a man with no equals at home and few anywhere in that sizeable No 8 shirt.


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