Italy are ready for great leap forward

Newcomers will struggle initially but history suggests their inclusion can only prove beneficial in the long term Richard Williams
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The Independent Online

At two o'clock this afternoon in Rome's Stadio Flaminio, the players of Italy and Scotland will be given the chance to kick off the latest phase in the evolution of Europe's principal rugby tournament. The arrival of the Italians represents the most radical modification to the event since the French were introduced in 1910 to turn what had been, since 1883, a British Isles-based squabble into anauthentic international contest.

At two o'clock this afternoon in Rome's Stadio Flaminio, the players of Italy and Scotland will be given the chance to kick off the latest phase in the evolution of Europe's principal rugby tournament. The arrival of the Italians represents the most radical modification to the event since the French were introduced in 1910 to turn what had been, since 1883, a British Isles-based squabble into anauthentic international contest.

Ninety years of Five Nations history, much cherished and frequently glorious, ended on a sunlit Sunday afternoon last May, with a moment of unforgettable drama. When Scott Gibbs took Scott Quinnell's pass in injury time, evaded five white shirts, and touched down near enough to the Wembley posts to allow Neil Jenkins to kick the conversion, he gave Wales the narrowest of victories over England, one which also allowed Scotland, conquerors of France in the Stade de France the day before, to claim their fifth and final championship under the old format.

It was a wonderful farewell to the tournament for everyone but the English, who had prepared themselves for what would have been their 12th Grand Slam. And who knows what that last-minute failure to stop Gibbs cost Clive Woodward and his squad, in terms of damaged morale, as they built themselves up for the World Cup?

That kind of question is more and more likely to be asked now that rugby's horizons are widening by the week. No longer is the Six Nations' Championship entire unto itself. As with the FA Cup and the County Championship, it is already being seen from a slightly different perspective. Its significance is now as part of a year-long rolling maul of tournaments that begins with the domestic leagues, gathers pace in the European Cup, and ultimately reaches a climax with southern hemisphere tours and the quadrennial World Cup. If Rob Andrew's recent recommendations take effect, it will even be moved, lock, stock and front-row barrel-chests, to a dedicated six-week period in April and May.

Whatever formula is eventually adopted, the process of evolution represents a healthy recognition that, for all its innate conservatism, rugby exists as part of a modern world, a world transformed by communications technology, in which borders are more fluid and individual nationalities are becoming negotiable. So while this new version of the tournament may be the Six Nations in name, it could just as easily be called the Seven, Eight or Nine Nations - given the influx of transmigratory players and coaches of New Zealand origin, and the sprinkling of others born in Australia and South Africa, qualifying by virtue of ancestry or residence.

Among the coaches and their assistants, Graham Henry of Wales, Warren Gatland of Ireland, Brad Johnstone of Italy and John Mitchell of England will ensure that the All Black philosophy permeates much of the play, put into practice by the likes of John Leslie, the Scots' captain, Shane Howarth, the Wales full-back, and Legi Matiu, the new face in France's second row, born in Samoa.

Naturally, the world of Italian rugby is delighted by the arrival of their players at the top level of the European game - although to the vast majority of their compatriots, the sport ranks some way below water polo. Were the Azzurri to win something significant, of course, that would change overnight. But their new captain, Alessandro Troncon, and his squad might like to bear in mind that the newcomers of 1910 lost all four matches of their opening campaign. Not until 1959 were the French able to take the championship outright, under Lucien Miâs, whose tactical guidance launched them into the golden age of le French flair.

Eventually, perhaps, the Italians will be able to impose themselves to similar effect, writing their own signature on the event. Brad Johnstone's first job, however, will be to get "Tronky" and his boys playing a more rational and professional style of rugby than they showed in the World Cup, where they had hoped to confirm their credentials but ended up in disarray, going down to the Springboks by a score of 101 points to nil.

The argument against Italy's inclusion is that it will only level the competition down at a time when all efforts should be focused on raising the standard of the four home nations and France to the point where they can legitimately expect to meet the southern hemisphere sides on equal terms. Would Australia, New Zealand and South Africa voluntarily prejudice the quality of their Tri-Nations competition by introducing a weaker fourth country?

Yet although it might well be justified by the short-term gains, such a view runs against the grain of history. More competition means better competition. Diversity is strength. A policy based on exclusion must eventually, like genetic in-breeding, weaken the strain.

More immediately, at least as far as the Scots climbing the Spanish Steps and dancing in the Trevi Fountain this weekend are concerned, who could possibly complain about a change that adds Rome to Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh, London and Paris on the itinerary of European rugby's Grand Tour? By the banks of the Tiber, fresh legends are waiting to be written.

But on the field of play today, not just in Rome but at Twickenham and in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, the actual business of playing rugby is likely to be a more sober affair. After the disappointments of the World Cup, there are reputations to be restored. Ironically enough, given France's intoxicating display in the semi-final against the All Blacks, it was their new coach who put it most bluntly. "In today's rugby," Bernard Laporte said recently, "defence has become more important than attack." But that, he added, is not a good enough reason to stop running the ball, and his choice of Thomas Castaignÿde at full-back against Wales today is a visible pledge that he is committed to entertainment as well as to results.

A set of last-minute changes to the rules will probably make the game neither more nor less confusing to those on the sidelines. After a tackle has been made, the next defender on the scene must now approach the breakdown from behind the tackler - a ruling that looks open to a dangerous degree of individual interpretation by referees. A pack which allows its own scrum to be wheeled through 90 degrees will concede a scrum to the opposition - plenty of latitude here, surely, for fresh skulduggery. But if the introduction of a 10-minute sin-bin reduces the number of tactically motivated infringements, so much the better.

It is the new rule on lifting at the line-out which requires, at the very least, the suspension of a sense of humour. "Pre-gripping" of the jumper by a team-mate is now legal. If the latter is standing behind the former, he may only grab him by the shorts. If he is standing in front, he may grab his legs above the knees. This sounds less like the game we used to play than the sort of thing I saw Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore getting up to in a preview of The End of the Affair a couple of nights ago, under the protection of an 18 certificate. Come to think of it, perhaps that's where the Italians might have an edge.

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