When the rugby men of Italy first encountered an Aucklander by the name of John Kirwan - it was a memorable occasion, being the opening match of the inaugural World Cup in 1987 - they did not detect much of the Latin romantic in him. Kirwan was the All Blacks' right wing and a mighty big unit, a Lomu prototype who promptly scored one of the great tries of the age by stampeding the length of the field and leaving half a dozen blue-shirted opponents face down in the dirt. En route, there was no mention of the word "love".
Nowadays, he uses it all the time. It must be the climate. "What attitude am I trying to promote in Italian rugby? How does 'love' sound?" said the 39-year-old Azzurri coach, who succeeded his fellow North Islander, Brad Johnstone, in the job at the end of the 2002 Six Nations. "I'm serious. I want my players to remember the first time they fell in love and recall how dominated they were by the feeling, how possessed they were, how obsessed. If they can commit themselves in the same way to this team and the players around them, we'll be strong.
"People tell me there is no place for emotion in modern rugby, that rugby is about cool heads and cold reason. Not to my mind, it isn't. To my mind, emotion is fundamental; no genuine rugby lover" - that word again - "wants to see the game stripped of its passion. The way I want my side to play, there is no victory without it."
The Italians listen to Kirwan, who is young enough to speak his players' language - a generational advantage beyond the reach of his predecessor, an old All Black hard-head from the 1970s and no one's idea of a love guru. Under the current regime, they have broadened their horizons and widened their game; in last season's championship, they scored 12 tries in their five matches, more than any of the Celtic nations. Kirwan believes the Azzurri are "one huge upset away from turning a losing culture into a winning one" and, worryingly for England, who play at Stadio Flaminio on Sunday, thinks that upset is "just around the corner".
Had there been any justice in the sport - and as any Pacific Islander will confirm, justice is as common as snow in Samoa - that upset would almost certainly have occurred already. Last October, to be precise, during the pool stages of the World Cup. In fact, it would not have been much of a shock. Had the Italians been afforded the courtesy of a fair and equable fixture list, rather than one that bordered on the scandalous, they would probably have beaten Wales and secured a place in the quarter-finals for the first time in five attempts. As it was, the effects of playing four games in 15 days, as opposed to four in 22, wrecked their chances of progress.
"Don't talk to me about the World Cup," Kirwan said. "We've chewed on the issue, spat it out and forgotten it. I honestly don't give a toss now, because it's gone. We didn't achieve our goal in that tournament, and everyone knows why. But we did achieve something every bit as important, because we found belief. We know we need a 30 per cent improvement in every area - physical, tactical, mental, emotional - if we are to close some ground on England and France, but the other teams are in our sights and I detect a change of attitude amongst the players that reflects our level of competitiveness.
"I have absolutely no doubt that Italy is one of the major growth areas for rugby. I come from New Zealand, where three million people live; in Italy, where those who play have such a natural flair for the game, there is a population of 60 million. Where would you want to see the game grow over the next few years, in New Zealand or here? And it's beginning to happen. This game against England has been sold out for a month. Unheard of. They've managed to sell the television rights to the championship; previously, they had to give them away. Hell, my blokes were in the Italian issue of Cosmopolitan the other day. In a football country like this, it's an unreal thing to happen.
"What we most need now is for the people of Rome to come out and support us with everything they have. Most of the rugby is played in the north of the country; I live in the north for that reason. But Rome is the capital and politically, there is little prospect of the national team playing anywhere else. Public expectation there is low, but my expectations are higher - I happen to think we'll give England one hell of a game. But while we're doing it, I don't want to look around the stadium and see more white shirts than blue ones. I certainly don't want to see anyone wearing a kilt when we play the Scots in March. I want to see an Italian crowd giving an Italian team some serious backing."
Kirwan is not pinning too many hopes on victory this weekend - "We know that if England or France play well against us, we'll be up against it," he admitted - but believes his side, led by the excellent blind-side flanker from the Calvisano club, Andrea de Rossi, have it in them to win two championship matches for the first time since joining the tournament four years ago. The home match with Scotland on 6 March is a must-win fixture, and it follows that one of the two following games, against Ireland in Dublin on 20 March and against Wales in Cardiff a week later, must also yield a victory if targets are to be met.
Pie in the sky? Not necessarily. Italy possess a pack capable of testing both Irish and Welsh combinations, so the rest is down to how an unfamiliar pair of half-backs use the possession they are given. As coaches the world over like to say, they must learn to love the ball. Kirwan would certainly subscribe to that view.Reuse content