David Flatman: Italian strength and style hint at bright future

From the Front Row: Bath see off Aironi 22-6 in their Heineken Cup clash but hosts leave plenty of food for thought.
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The Independent Online

As a devout pantophagist, the prospect of a trip to Italy – and all the local grub likely to be on offer – always lightens my mood. And the hosts didn't disappoint. Far from the thick cut chips and pasties we are used to, after this match we walked into the beautifully presented function room to a spread the likes of which the English haven't seen since Henry VIII.

Had we lost the match to Aironi, of course, the Parma ham might not have been so easily justified and the red wine might have been swapped for fizzy water. But, as it was, we arrived at the (cold) showers a happy bunch of lads having secured a vital bonus point away from home in what was a somewhat scrappy, but certainly entertaining afternoon.

The Stadio Luigi Zaffanella hardlyrocked but the atmosphere was thoroughly sporting and, as ever, the standard of dress was something to behold. Like the food, fashion seems to be something the Italians get very right. One gets the feeling that if they can ever find the way to truly cement themselves as a rugby force for the long term, they might just make a good fist of that, too.

In some areas of the game – the physical side being one – these guys want for nothing. When you look at a top Italian player you see a different animal from the ones we are used to observing in our domestic setting. They look, some of them, like they perhaps haven't spent quite long enough in the gym. Then, when you collide with them, they feel to be made of a different material all together. These are not physiques sculpted in a room full of heavy weights and machines resembling torture chambers of old; these are men whose strength has been gained on the rugby field. They seem heavier of bone, denser of muscle, much like your standard Argentinian.

And these lads came to play. A lot of our talk before kick-off was concerning the level of physicality Aironi were likely to bring and in the first few minutes they lived up to their billing. Every time we made a mistakeor presented them with an opening they went for it, generally through their gargantuan No 8, Nick Williams, who seems to have a penchant for going through the middle of the breakdown; cheeky, but effective when you're nudging 20 stones.

When it was my turn to tackle him I had a quick equation to solve in my mind: were my Tyrannosaurus Rex arms likely to get all the way around him? With that settled, I decided to target the calf. Surely they'd manage to circumnavigate that? Turned out that all my calculating had wasted valuable time and all that was left was an ankle. I took it as a sign, and lunged with all the vigour my lungs would allow. It worked, and for that we are all grateful.

As an experience, I would say the Aironi one is certainly worthy of the Heineken Cup. I know it's not all about the food, or the general standard of dress, but all of these factors add up to create a top class sporting weekend. This would all fall down, of course, were the rugby of an unacceptable standard, but yesterday it wasn't. As we saw last week as Leicester travelled to Treviso, the Italians are getting there. If they could find the money to bring home the likes of Castrogiovanni and Parisse, along with some high-level coaches, surely the scalps of the world's top rugby nations would become realistic goals.

As things stand, though, Aironi remain a side who seem to relish the role of underdog with an almost visible venom. How long they stay typecast is probably down to the money, but I truly hope it comes in bundles. Their spirit in which they approach the game is bang on and the place is just beautiful. When they start winning, fashions might change and Italy might become the new France.

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