The Italy crowd

WHEN Italy lost 36-11 at Twickenham on Saturday, it was their 39th defeat in 46 Six Nations matches since they entered the competition in 2000. Nobody expected overnight success nine years ago, but this is really slow progress.

Italian rugby union is progressing, though. Last summer, the Azzurri beat Argentina, ranked third in the world, and lost by only 10 points to Australia. They should, perhaps, have made the knockout stages at the last World Cup, but David Bortolussi missed a long-range penalty at a critical point of their pool stage match against Scotland, and it wasn’t to be.

In addition, the game is getting more popular in Italy all the time, to the extent that they may have to find somewhere bigger than the Stadio Flaminio to host their Six Nations home games.

The problem is that Italy’s national side are stuck in a no man’s land between the European also-rans and the big boys. The transition is proving hard going.

Italy, despite the fact that they are getting closer to competing with Europe’s best, are once again seen as the Six Nations fall guys, expected to battle it out with Scotland for the wooden spoon. Their side is good, but not good enough. And rugby union is not a sport prone to upsets: the team who has the most possession almost invariably wins.

The Azzurri have a good back row, containing the energy of Mauro Bergamasco and the drive of captain Sergio Parisse, but they don’t have that kind of quality throughout the team.

Coach Nick Mallett seems to have spent most of his time in charge trying to figure out who to play at fly half, while basic errors – such as the line-out overthrow by Fabio Ongaro which led to England’s first try – don’t help.

Rugby union in general – and the Six Nations in particular – would benefit from a strong Italy team. A higher standard beyond the strongest nations might help ensure, for instance, that the next World Cup has fewer one-sided try-fests in the pool stages. And it would be great to think that, at some point, the Azzurri might actually make a half-decent tilt for the Six Nations title.

On Saturday’s evidence, that tilt is hardly any closer than it was when they entered the Six Nations arena on February 5, 2000 with a shock win over Scotland.

Most of the reports on that defeat at Twickenham centred on how laboured England’s performance was. It’s true that England weren’t great, and haven’t been for sometime (memories of the autumn Test humiliations at home to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand still cause a shudder or two).

But any half-decent team would have beaten England on Saturday. The fact that Italy didn’t get close shows just how far they have to go.

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