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It has taken Italy more than a century to realise there is more than one form of “football”. But with 85,000 registered players and a fast-growing fan base, rugby has finally found a place next to il calcio in the hearts of the Italian public.
While results on the field have often trailed enthusiasm in the stands, the Azzurri are still hopeful they will qualify for the World Cup quarter-finals. But with better-ranked Ireland and France also in Pool D, the chance of Italy making it into the top eight remains slim.
Italy are going to have to play some “very good rugby” to reach the quarter-finals, concedes Luigi Troiani, team manager. “We face two stronger teams, and even beating one of them may not be enough,” he says.
Rugby in Italy has made a giant leap since the first oval ball arrived at the port of Genoa at the end of the 19th century for the benefit of the local community of English merchants. The Italian Rugby Federation was set up in 1928 under Mussolini’s fascist regime, which embraced the sport’s combative nature and sought to promote it in universities.
But for much of the postwar era, rugby was mainly found in scattered enclaves, such as Veneto, where some upper-class religious schools played it. Meanwhile, in Abruzzo in central Italy there was more of a working-class tradition behind the take-up of rugby, much like in southern France.
Rugby’s popularity boomed in 2000, when Italy joined England, Ireland, France, Wales and Scotland in what therefore became known as the Six Nations tournament.
Italy won its debut match against Scotland, raising hopes that it could quickly make its mark among its more experienced rivals. But while the Italians have since been party to some famous moments — beating France in 2011 and 2013 — they have often lacked consistency, losing, on average, four out of five of their Six Nations games.
Part of the problem lies in the size of the talent pool. While the number of enrolled players has increased roughly fourfold since 2000, it remains small by the standards of other rugby-playing nations in Europe.
Italy has one absolute star in captain Sergio Parisse, a handful of other good players and some interesting prospects coming up from its youth ranks. But with too few stadiums and players, even competing in the Six Nations and winning some matches is a miracle.
Still, Italian supporters show remarkable resilience. The Stadio Olimpico in Rome, where the national team plays its Six Nations home games, has a tournament attendance rate that is well in line with other countries. The Italian public views the team’s spirit as on a par with the national football team.
“Our supporters are among the best in the world,” says Leonardo Ghiraldini, Italy’s hooker, who plays for Leicester Tigers. “They enjoy the passion we put on the field. They see in us the positive side of professional sport in Italy.”