There are two types of Italian man. There are the slim-fit, style-conscious, immaculately groomed espresso sippers, and there are the ones who were, presumably, born too big to ever be trendy and instead clothed themselves in testosterone and ate little more than raw meat from childhood.
Rugby union has room for men of both schools, and even the odd hybrid. An example is Gonzalo Canale, the Azzurri centre, who might well be an olive-skinned Adonis but just so happens to be able to flatten a bull with a stare. So to glibly dismiss the machismo of the men of Italy and subconsciously drop them all into the pigeonhole marked "into fashion" is to forget some of our game's most brutal customers.
The first time I played against Carlos Nieto, the mighty Italian tighthead prop, I finished the game feeling fresh; I just didn't find him too big a handful. After a decent dollop of hype I was, frankly, a little underwhelmed. However, it transpired that he had in fact been nursing a dicky back but played anyway. Next time, I thought, next time I will find out what this bloke has in the locker. And my goodness, it was a lot.
He was – and is – a freakishly strong man. So strong in fact that, having barely survived 80 minutes against him, I walked straight up to my coach after the final whistle and said: "Right, I need to change how I'm training; I can't compete with that in my current state." And I did; I changed everything, all because of this bloke.
Nieto's time as a Test prop is over now, and the box-office giant that is Martin Castrogiovanni has taken the helm. Castro is an interesting set of contradictions, actually. His hair is certainly impractical and probably rather high-maintenance, but it is scruffy enough not to be a product of vanity. His natural flamboyance, despite his best efforts to adhere to the unwritten code of propping silence, leaks out from time to time – usually as a seminal scrum decision goes his way.
He did it to me once: after an hour of no-holds-barred ferocity in which (excuse my bias) we had taken the upper hand, he hit me perfectly – though I will always claim his angle was illegal, naturally – and took me to the cleaners. The whistle blasted, we both knew who had got the nod, and "Vamos!" he shrieked, arms waving. Normally, so vocal a celebration would land a player on an opposing prop's hit list, but with him it did not. You see, he may be a touch more expressive than some, but he also works his backside off at all times, shirks nothing and always takes the bad days with humility. He is a prop in the truest sense.
When placed alongside Andrea Lo Cicero, the bookend on the other side of the Azzurri front row and the man with the largest, most beautifully tattooed legs in the north, they form a partnership that belies the status of the country for which they play. Lo Cicero is, along with Castro, a national hero – and this in a nation besotted with roundball and, to a lesser extent, cycling. They have horrid days at the grinder, of course they do; the Wales game was one such day. But those two will receive these set-piece defeats as insults, and will react accordingly. England will not have it easy today.
I remember talking to Julian White and Danny Grewcock as they prepared to play Italy a few years back, and I commented that they should just get the small matter of the win out of the way, then head off into the night. As if it had been rehearsed, they both stopped me flat. I will not write what they said verbatim, suffice to say they had a healthy level of respect for the physical challenge they knew lay ahead in Rome.
Following the French model, props have become heroes of the highest order in Italy. In a nation that is so often associated with aesthetics, Castro the behemoth has his picture taken more often than Sergio Parisse the god. But this is a cultured, intelligent sporting public, and they know what they like. Over here Dan Cole is slowly starting to garner the sort of appreciation that he deserves, but the Italians he and his chums face today are already there.
Be ready, England: an Italian prop forward is a large, densely muscled, proud beast. Long may the adoration continue.