The Italians are World Cup ever-presents but have never made the quarter-finals. Here’s their journey
Italy’s World Cup experience started with a bang – an All Black bang that blew them to bits 70-6. It was Auckland 1987, the tournament opener, and the Italians were up against a New Zealand side determined to show their fans they meant business. It was an All Black side crammed full of world-class players – grizzled stars such as Gary Whetton and John Kirwan and others, like Sean Fitzpatrick, John Gallagher and Michael Jones, who were just beginning to blossom into the greats that they would later become.
The All Blacks scored 12 tries, one of them a World Cup classic, as Kirwan ran the ball out of his 22 and swerved and skipped his way past seven Italians on his way to the try-line. As one newspaper said the next day, it was a “hopelessly one-sided contest… fun but farcical” Italy lost their next match to Argentina 25-16 but triumphed in their third, scoring three tries against a strong Fiji side that later gave France a run for their money in the quarter-final.
In the 1991 tournament Italy got off to a flyer with a 30-9 thrashing of the USA at Otley in West Yorkshire. Italy’s four tries were converted by a devilishly handsome, not to mention handy, fly-half called Diego Dominguez, playing in only his fifth Test. He would go on to appear in every one of Italy’s matches in the next three World Cups, scoring 98 points in nine appearances.
Alas, Italy’s second game in the 1991 World Cup wasn’t a collector’s item, unless one was a collector of all things awful. England won on points – 36-10 – but Italy won on penalties, conceding 37 to their opponents’ ten. England No 8 Dean Richards accused the Italians of cheating (oh, the irony, Deano!) because of their persistent infringing and the Azzurri left Twickenham having won few friends.
That all changed a few days later in front of a riveted 16,000 at Welford Road. The Guardian described Italy’s match against New Zealand as a “thrilling encounter” and that it was, as the All Blacks were hit hard and low, time and again, by an Italian XV still seething at the memory of their encounter four years earlier. New Zealand eventually struggled free to win 31-21 but the Italians trooped off to a standing ovation having salvaged their reputation.
Italy arrived in South Africa in 1995 with a spring in their Latin step. They’d beaten Ireland in their World Cup warm-up and fancied themselves first up against Samoa. But this was a Samoan team with a swagger of its own and they hammered Italy 42-18.
Italy recovered for their clash with England, a match in which both sides scored two tries and only the boot of Rob Andrew edged the English home 27-20. Though they went on to beat Argentina in their third pool match, Italy returned home knowing that against Samoa they had blown their chance of reaching the knockout phase.
Blown away was what happened to Italy in 1999, a tournament that is best passed over in one brief paragraph. A team that was talented but ageing simply had no answer to the power of England (67-7) and New Zealand (101-3), nor even Tonga, who sneaked through 28-25 thanks to a delicious drop-goal from Sateki Tuipulotu.
By the time of the 2003 World Cup Italy had four seasons of Six Nations rugby under their belt, and it showed as they swept aside Tonga 36-12 and wrestled their way past Canada. Having lost to New Zealand in their opening pool game, Italy needed to beat Wales to reach their first quarter-final but in the end their lack of experience let them down and the Welsh won 27-15. Young guns like Sergio Parisse, Gonzalo Canale and Martin Castrogiovanni were undone by the wily ways of campaigners like Colin Charvis and Gareth Thomas.
Four years later in France, however, there was no excuse for what happened at Saint-Etienne. Having begun with another spanking by the All Blacks (76-14 at their fifth meeting in six World Cups), Italy saw off Romania and Portugal to set up a do-or-die clash with the Scots. The prize was a quarter-final against Argentina.
Six months earlier in Edinburgh Italy had humiliated Scotland in the Six Nations, running in four tries in a 37-17 romp. Parisse, Canale and Castrogiovanni were now a triumvirate of veterans while the side also featured the Bergamasco brothers, not to mention the ageless Alessandro Troncon at scrum-half.
It was far from a classic but it was strangely gripping nonetheless, a game played in heavy rain with few clear-cut chances for either side. Troncon scored the only try of the game but in Chris Paterson the Scots had the match-winner. His six penalties sneaked Scotland home 18-16 leaving the Italians once again to reflect on the error of their ways. “We worked hard but didn’t win,” said Troncon. “We did all that we could but made some mistakes.”
Six World Cups and no place in a knockout phase is Italy’s tournament record, and with Australia and Ireland in their group this time around, the Azzurri must produce their best-ever tournament form if they are to give themselves a chance of finally making it through to the quarter-finals.
Italy’s World Cup record Italy in numbers
1987 Pool stage IRB world ranking 12th
1991 Pool stage Clubs 784
1995 Pool stage Registered players 66,176
1999 Pool stage Senior male players 15,848
2003 Pool stage Referees 857
2007 Pool stage
This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.
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