At last, a forza to be reckoned with

Last updated at 00:04 02 March 2007


A weird and quite

wonderful thing happened

all over Italy on

Monday morning. In a

country where only

one kind of football has ever

mattered, newspapers from

Milan to Palermo cleared the

decks to acclaim their rugby

heroes.

None made a more comprehensive

job of reporting the victory

over Scotland at Murrayfield than

La Gazzetta dello Sport, the football

bible.

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Italia Che Forza (Italy

What A Force) screamed the frontpage

headline, with the first three

pages of the famous pink paper

devoted not to Serie A but to

unprecedented coverage of the

scorching of Scozia.

"Rugby is not just a great sport," it

proclaimed with a discoverer’s

sense of excitement. "It can also

give lessons to the contaminated

world in soccer."

Il Corriere della Sera splashed its

approval in time-honoured romantic

fashion: "Italy falls in love with

the scrum boys."

Rugby players

"rarely argue" with referees and

crowd trouble is "unheard of", a fact

made pointedly in the wake of the

death of a policeman during a

soccer riot in Catania last month.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi

sent his personal congratulations

after a victory which set an Italian

record for television viewers for a

rugby match.

Carlo Ancelotti, the

AC Milan coach, invited every one

of the squad to be his guests at San

Siro for next week’s Champions

League match to help inspire

another victory over another

Scottish team, Celtic.

For the first time, state television

filmed their homecoming at Rome’s

Fiumicino airport. Those who

would not have given the team a

second look, like passengers in transit

to Leonardo da Vinci, clapped

and cheered.

At this rate their captain,

Gloucester lock Marco Bortolami,

is more in danger of being

mobbed in the Piazzi del Popolo

than in The Shed at Kingsholm.

"We did not conquer only the

other team," said Alessandro Troncon,

the Azzurri’s indomitable

scrum half. "Maybe we are beginning

to conquer more and more of

the Italian people."

The home matches against Wales

tomorrow week and Ireland the following

week are sold out. Instead

of struggling to fill the modest Stadio

Flaminio in Rome, the Italian

Rugby Federation are planning to

build an extra tier of 8,000 seats

and raise capacity to 32,000.

If that cannot be done soon

enough, president Giancarlo Dondi

will not hesitate to move Six Nations

matches to Bologna’s 45,000-seater

football stadium.

Under the shrewd

generalship of their French head

coach, the Napoleonic-like Pierre

Berbizier, Italy is on the march as a

serious rugby country.

At last the Six Nations has a real

European feel about it as opposed

to a cosy home countries cabal

from which even the French were

excluded for decades. The Scots

will not appreciate the sentiment

but what Italy achieved in Edinburgh

last week was the best thing that could have happened to the

championship.

The downside is that it leaves the

Scottish game in a more critical

state than ever — and that is saying

something. The SRU are £23million

in debt and public apathy has got

to the stage where their two whollyowned

professional teams are being

left high and dry by the fans.

Borders

had 1,485 for their last Magners

League game, against Munster.

Glasgow were down to 1,825 against

Llanelli on the same night.

Now Scotland’s best players are

joining the exodus, with announcements

almost daily of the latest

departures.

Three more, all from Glasgow,

confirmed their imminent exit yesterday.

Euan Murray, Scotland’s

tighthead prop, will be playing for

Northampton next season, hooker

Scott Lawson for Sale and utility

back Rory Lamont is talking to several

English clubs, including Sale.

Edinburgh fear they could lose up

to a dozen players.

An SRU spokesman said: "We find

it impossible to compete against

larger, more financially secure

clubs in other European countries.

Despite many efforts to keep these

talented players in Scotland, market

forces dictate that this is not a

situation the governing body has

sufficient power to control."

Head coach Frank Hadden’s

warning about the grass not always

being greener on distant fields is

unlikely to stem the flow.

The Edinburgh

Lion, Simon Taylor, has

decided it is green enough in

France to sign for Stade Francais,

with every prospect of veteran lock

Scott Murray following him to Racing

Club in Paris and David Callam

to Bourgoin.

Edinburgh centre

Rob Dewey and Borders’ former

Bath wing Simon Danielli have

signed for Ulster, back row forward

Alasdair Strokosch for Gloucester

and Stade are keeping an eye on

Lions scrum half Chris Cusiter.

No wonder the Parisian club’s

president, Max Guazzini, fears that

next year Scotland will be like Italy

and Argentina, with the majority of

their best players employed elsewhere.

Welsh still at war over Phillips

No St David’s Day

truce between the

warring Welsh tribes

of east and west.

Cardiff complain that

scrum half Mike

Phillips’s transfer to

the Ospreys is

"unhealthy" for Welsh

rugby.

The same can hardly

be said of the player’s

bank account, not with a four-year deal

offering an earnings

potential not far

short of £1million and

a £50,000 signing-on

fee to boot.

The Arms Park club

say they fought off

"sensible" offers from

English clubs,

implying that the

Ospreys’ offer of

£180,000-a-year plus

was not sensible but

some way over the

odds.

What their fans

do not know is that

Cardiff offered Wales

fly half Stephen Jones

£150,000-a-year

before his return

from France last year,

only to be outbid by

Llanelli.

It’s called market

forces.

Deano and Co return to settle the grudge

Dean Richards played his 314th

and last match for Leicester at

Welford Road 10 years ago. He will

be going back there for his 315th

later this month and is understood

to be in secret training, of sorts.

Given his lifelong aversion to

wasting energy, training might be

too strong a word. In the days

when no self-respecting England

team would be seen without him,

Deano’s idea of a warm-up was to

lie back, tickle his tummy and see

how long it took for the jelly-like

wobbles to subside.

It would take something fairly

special, therefore, to tempt him

out of retirement, like a re-run of

the most controversial of English

Cup finals in May 1996 when the

Tigers claim they were robbed by

the last-minute penalty try which allowed Bath to beat them 16-15.

Well, the worst of enemies are to

do it all over again at Welford

Road on Sunday March 18 — same

teams, same kit (with Leicester

wearing letters) and the same

referee, Steve Lander.

Neil Back,

who shamefully pushed him over

during the furious finale at

Twickenham, will be there.

They are not calling it The Grudge

Match for nothing and nobody

holds a grudge quite like those

Tigers.

After trudging up to the

Royal Box to collect their losers’

memento, a cut-glass tankard,

most of the Leicester players

promptly smashed them against

the dressing-room wall in disgust.

Leon Lloyd, the former England

centre who is organising the

match as a joint-benefit along

with Bath’s Matt Perry, has

enquired about a new batch of

glass tankards in anticipation of

another smashing finish.

Everyone, it seems, has confirmed

his attendance except for Bath’s

openside flanker, Andy Robinson,

42. The former England coach

does not do friendlies but

attempts are being made to

shame him into changing his mind.

DOES England’s decision to

play France next week without

a specialist full back mean Mark

van Gisbergen has been consigned

to the shortest career in Red Rose

history? Wasps’ New Zealander has

not been seen since his 10 minutes

as a blood replacement against

Australia in November 2005 and

appears to have fallen off the radar.

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