This has, historically, been a typical day in Gli Azzurri‘s dressing room – lounging around in their mutande pouting, wondering who forgot to bring l’Olio d’Oliva Extra Virgine, about as ready to rendere il massimo as a Viagra-less Silvio Berlusconi.
Yet Gli Azzurri wrapped up their Six Nations with two wins, their equal-best ever effort. And they pushed England hard at their hoodoo ground Twickers. The question is, why?
Look no further.
It can be no quirk of fate that his absence coincided with their improvement. Apart from forever taking Gli Azzurri from well behind the advantage line to somewhere out in the car park, he’s Australian.
Well, he’s a Queenslander. There’s a subtle difference. And there’s an even more subtle difference in that I marginally defame your average Queenslander because he’s actually from Cairns.
Cairns is proof positive of my long-held theory – mentioned in this august company before – that the closer to the equator you live, the closer your head is to the sun, hence your brain is roasted at an early age. Certain southern American states only bear out my theory. For that matter, conversely, the closer you live to Antarctica, the more likely your brain to turn to gelato. Witness Tasmanians. Or, in the case of the Arctic, Scots.
In fact, Cairns-ites whose brains are yet to be entirely roasted have been known to jump to their deaths from great heights to escape the place. Signs are even erected to protect the roasted-brain locals from falling would-be escapees.
But, tempting as it is to stereotype North Queenslanders for 500 words – and you’d understand the temptation if you met one – there are other reasons for Gli Azzurri‘s relative improvement. For one thing, Sergio Parisse clearly had a look at himself in the proverbial clichéd mirror and cringed at what he saw.
Why hang around like a knob – albeit barely hidden behind a footy – waiting to be sculpted when Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519? Pulling up his socks off-field – after actually putting some on – has resulted in more mature on-field performances. Sergio had often seemed to want to do it all on his own. These days he’s working just as hard but now also with his head down, grafting, backing up and supporting teammates.
Coach Jacques Brunel also brought a novel approach with him from Perpignan. The Azzurri backs were no longer to be passengers. Which amounted, in his view, to instilling the confidence to take chances. Hardly, historically, an Azzurri tactic. Opting to start the tournament with Luciano Orquera at 10 signalled his intent.
Orquera defines flaky. Always has. Give him time and space – as France did massively, and England and Ireland to a lesser extent – and he can create something out of nothing. Smother him as Scotland did and he can turn into a liability. It’s the risk you take. But, currently, he’s Gli Azzurri‘s only ready-made attacking 10 option. Thankfully, after Brunel lost his nerve and resorted to the Cairns-ite against Wales, with the predictable result, he rediscovered his nerve for England and the Cairns-ite was banished from the 23 hopefully forever.
Let Jacques Brunel imprint this message on his frontal lobe.
The bottom line is that the backs gave it a go more than they have in my memory. Often too lateral, predictable and lacking in guile – oh for a strike runner on an angle! – but, after some consistently outstanding Azzurri defence, with herculean back-row and forwards efforts securing possession, the backs did contrive to threaten. Not, historically, an Azzurri habit.
Brunel has said he’s happy with the progress over the tournament. He should be. But he’s not content. He wants more consistency and that, I suspect, has a lot to do with concentration from the moment the last notes of the anthem fade.
And, over the coming seasons, he knows he will need to replace some of his stars. Parisse and Zanni, the real quality in the team, are in their late 20s. Masi is 32. Castro 31. As is Orquera.
The signs are promising. Francesco Minto is developing nicely as a lock and can play backrow. Simone Favaro is another developing backrower. 22-year-old Tommaso Benvenuti is a fine 13 of the future.
Nick Mallett drove the establishment of Academy catchment areas all over Italy rather than focusing only in the north. Incumbents Edoardo Gori and Giovanbattista Venditti are Academy products, Gli Azzurri U-20 skipper Angelo Esposito, a winger and FB, has been with the national squad for experience and 19 year-old out-half Edoardo Padovani won’t be far behind him.
No one, of course, will ever replace Sergio Parisse.