Rugby Union: Italians promise 6 appeal; The first year will be tough, but we won't be pushovers.
The Italians have made huge strides since taking on New Zealand in the very first game of the World Cup in 1987.
However, they took a buffeting in last year's World Cup when the All Blacks raged to a 101-3 landslide victory over the hapless Italians.
Defeats against England and, more surprisingly, Tonga left Italy fearing the worse for the Six Nations.
The demoralising defeats capped off a miserable 12 months during which Italy spent the entire year in reverse gear.
They conceded 60 points at home to Wales before being hammered in two Tests in South Africa, where the Springboks crushed them by 73 points one week and 101 the next.
Long-term coach George Costes had seen enough and walked away from the carnage.
But their progress since the late 1980s cannot be overlooked. Italy slowly but surely built themselves into a force to be reckoned in the late '80s under coach Bernard Fourcade. His good work was carried on by Costes, another Frenchman.
In 1995 they nearly pulled off the shock of the decade before narrowly going down to Australia. Since then they have claimed the scalps of France, Ireland and Scotland and only a shocking refereeing decision denied them victory over England in a World Cup qualifying pool match in Huddersfield.
The Italians, whose national league boasts players from around the world, have felt aggrieved at having to wait so long to join the Five Nations. They argue that their record speaks for itself.
Ireland (three times) and Scotland have been on the receiving end of defeats in the last five years while the Grand Slam French side three years ago suffered an embarrassing 40-32 loss at Grenoble.
Wales haven't had it easy either. In 1996 they had to hang on for grim death to record a 31-26 win at Cardiff before winning the return match in Rome slightly more comfortably 22-31.
Italy have followed Graham Henry's example and recruited from around the world.
Diego Dominguez has become one of the world's leading goal kickers since leaving Argentina, while fellow countrymen Luciano Pucciariello and Luciano Cornella (both props), French lock Loran Travino and Aussie winger Mark Giacheri and full-back Matt Pini are others who have changed their allegiance.
Pini, who has also played for the Wallabies, believes Italy deserve their chance at the highest level.
"You could argue that Italy should have been in the competition before now," he says. "It's a disgrace it has taken so long for the other nations to let us in. In the grand scheme of things, what is the Five Nations? It was getting boring and it needed a push."
The Italians feel they have proved to themselves and the rest of Europe that they should no longer be taken for granted. Although there is no doubting their ability on home soil, there is a feeling that once they leave their own environment they travel as well as cheap plonk.
Pini dismisses that notion. "We've beaten France, Ireland and Scotland away. You've only got to look at the past record. So I don't really see it as a problem."
Pini knows Italy face a tough task but he expects the Azzurri to acquit themselves well because this is the chance they have all been waiting for.
"They are very excited about playing," he says. "They've been aiming for it for a number of years. They know the size of the task and how hard it will be so they won't be going in with any false expectations.
"You've got to go in positively and believe you can win it. I don't think we can win it straight away but they're very excited about having the chance.
"They've been playing the sides in the Five Nations, and been competing well against them. They know they are very good sides and respect them.
"It's a building process basically. The first year is going to be tough but people are finally realising that Italy aren't going to be a pushover."
ANOTHER player who feels Italy are ready for their tough assignment is rugged former Springbok captain Adriaan Richter, who is currently playing at Benetton Treviso.
"I think they have already shown in the past couple of years they are ready for it," he says. "They've beaten three Five Nations sides in France, Scotland and Ireland, and have in the past couple of years lost narrowly to Wales and England.
"I think they are up for it. They will be playing home and away which will be different for them but the signs are there that they are getting set up for it. If Italy get stuck into it and keep their game plan up - home and away - they can do well. But first they've got to get themselves in the right frame of mind. They haven't got the mentality yet to make sure they can reproduce the form away from home.
"They need something like the Six Nations to get in the public eye. They don't have the encouragement in Italy because it's dominated by soccer. They need something big to put them up there, but they need to be doing well in the Six Nations.
"If Italy want to go forward, they've got to take the knocks, get back up and keep going," says the straight-talking South African.
But Pini believes there is enough talent to ensure success for the Italians. "Italy have been bringing in players all the time which is great. For the past season and a half the results speak for themselves.
"Centre Christian Stoica has the ability to make an impact while the young breakaway Mauro Bergamasco and hooker Alessandro Moscardi have come through the ranks and show a lot of promise."
The Azzurri are now spearheaded by new skipper Alessandro Troncon while Dominguez provides the points with his lethal right boot.
Pini believes the Latins can add a bit of sparkle to the Six Nations, although he would like to see another change in the championship.
"You've just got to look at some of the games and they're so boring. I think the addition of Italy will add a bit more excitement than normal.
"And it would be better if the matches were played week after week. Then you'd find out who had the strongest squad. It's too drawn out over a couple of months."
Italian hooker Alessandro Moscardi, along with his team-mates, is hoping to consign the World Cup nightmare to the rubbish bin.
"I think we can play some good rugby," he says. "I'm not saying we will win the championship, but we will be competitive and I'm sure we will cause a few headaches.
"The game against the All Blacks wasn't the best experience of my life that's for sure. I was only a second half replacement but the damage had already been done by then.
"The situation was already bad. We had lost to England and we unluckily lost to Tonga."
Moscardi, a robust but skilful rake, is adamant the Italians can bounce back form their horrendous past 12 months.
"It is a privilege to play for your country,"he says without hesitation. "It's a dream come true. Last year we had a lot of problems. A lot of injuries, poor results and coaches under fire all piled on the pressure for us. Despite all that I was happy to play for my country.
"The World Cup was frustrating for me. We worked so hard to get there and it all fell apart."
Moscardi, who is studying architecture, firmly believes the best is yet to come. "What Italy showed in the World Cup was not the real Italy," he says.
"That's for sure. We are very close ability wise to the other teams in the competition."
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Feb 5, 2000|
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