Everyone’s second favourite team in the Six Nations have truly reached the end of the road.
Between 2000 and 2015, Italy won 12 games and drew one of their 90 Six Nations fixtures. Not a good record at all, but in the same period Scotland only managed 19 wins and two draws. Italy had finished bottom ten out of the 16 years the Championship had run, but had beaten all but one team at least once in the competition, including victories on the road – most notably a 37-17 thumping of Scotland at Murrayfield in 2007 – and consecutive home victories against France just before, and after, Les Bleus reached the World Cup Final.
Since then however, Italy have lost 26 games in a row, and while they have put in a string of brave performances it would be too generous to say they have looked like winning a single one of those encounters.
Scotland, the side who they often closely fought with for the Wooden Spoon, have come on leaps and bounds in winning 11 of their last 24, with many tipping them to win against Wales at Cardiff this weekend and continue their slow but steady improvement under Gregor Townsend.
Townsend is a fine coach, but he is no visionary that has dragged Scotland away from Wooden Spoon battles, nor have Italy had poor coaches themselves over the last five years. Unfortunately, the quality of players that are coming through in Italy simply aren’t good enough for them to have any hope of returning to the period between 2007 and 2013 where they consistently justified their position with their performances, and sporadically showed just how much they had added to the competition as they averaged more than a win per tournament during those years.
Long before Italy’s complete competitive collapse I had advocated a relegation play-off against the winners of Rugby Europe International Championships, the tier two equivalent to the Six Nations. That play-off would likely be played against Georgia, winners of nine of the last ten titles.
As Italy began to fall away from being competitive, that argument became increasingly pertinent. Six Nations organisers were quick to point to the financial disparity between Italy hosting games and Georgia hosting games – as always amongst the upper echelons of rugby bureaucracy, it was all about money – but calls from fans were getting louder and louder.
When Italy beat Georgia convincingly in the 2018 Autumn Internationals, and the latter returned a string of dismal performances at the 2019 World Cup, these calls began to fade. This was helped by Italy’s efforts at the same tournament, as they recorded their highest points total over their group matches, and earned two really impressive wins against tier two opposition, but they have done nothing to back it up in this competition.
A slow start led to them chasing the game against Wales and losing 42-0. They would fail to score a single point again as they went down to Scotland at home – a game they used to expect to win – in week three, and though they had put in a spirited performance against France the week before, last weekend’s 50-17 defeat to Ireland was as comprehensive a domination as you will see at this level.
In many ways, it was sad to watch. Only their beautiful overtime score was something to raise a smile, but the rest of the game was desperately frustrating. Every mistake was compounded with another, every positive moment failed to be capitalised on. This was largely their own fault, but the run has been going on so long it is almost as if referees assume that in every 50:50 decision around the breakdown, Italy are in the wrong.
Even with that said though, Italy’s sloppiness does leave them very vulnerable to it. It has been refreshing to see their coaches try new tactics but they just don’t have the instincts or quality to be able to put it into anything tangible. Their 17-0 home loss to Scotland in round three saw them put together some great, innovative build up play, but it fizzled out because of a desperate lack of penetration and attacking nous when they came close to scoring.
Such a deep downward spiral has led to the calls for them to be removed to resurface, but not be replaced by Georgia, rather reduce the competition down to five teams. With overplaying and player welfare increasingly coming into the spotlight, this would be a way to reduce the burden on players who play too many games (particularly in England and France) while allowing Italy to play at a level where they can have more competitive fixtures.
There is the argument to say it financially benefits all teams to have more games, and of course Italy in particular to play bigger teams, but attendances are dwindling. Their attendance from their last home game against Wales was 2,000 lower than the game before, against France they were 3,000 down when comparing the same two games, against Scotland 6,000 down, and their last two home games against England where fans have been available saw a full house of 70,000 in 2016, followed by an 8,500 drop in 2018.
World Rugby is at a crossroads of what it wants to be. Does it want to be like cricket, with the thickest of glass ceilings separating the best nine teams from the rest? Or does it want to open up to allow any country on earth to grow and make World Cup finals, as has been seen in Football over the past 100 years. Italy should be allowed to play at a lower level, regenerate the game at home, and strive for future success. The financial incentives to be in the top tier of World Rugby currently make that too difficult though.
If rugby wants to be a game for all countries, Italy should be allowed to take this logical step, easing the impossibly difficult challenge that an annual Six Nations poses. Unfortunately though, such is the way rugby is structured and the growing financial difficulties posed by the pandemic, that Italy will likely have to stay in this tournament losing over and over again, and the realisation they need to drop to a lower tier of rugby may come too late for them to revive the sport in one of the Rugby World Cup regulars’ most populous nations.