Hugging the foot of the tables in the Six Nations, Pro12 and Champions Cup, is it time to face facts that Italian rugby doesn't deserve a place at the top table?
I have an admission. On Saturday afternoon I passed up the opportunity of watching my local club, Stade Francais, in the Champions Cup. I went Christmas shopping instead. Unpardonable? Perhaps, but Christmas comes round once a year while the chance to see Treviso get a thrashing is a regular event
This time the Italians were whipped 41-14, an improvement nonetheless on the 50-17 hammering they received the previous weekend from Stade. At least Treviso scored some tries, not something they achieved in the 36-3 defeat to Leicester Tigers in round two of the Champions Cup. Their opening pool match, in case you’d forgotten, resulted in a 32-7 rout by Munster.
So Treviso will finish bottom of pool four and with a trip to Leicester and the visit of Munster to come it looks like they’ll end the competition without a win, as they did in 2013-14. Last season they managed one victory, a 23-20 win against the Ospreys in the final group game when there was no chance of either reaching the quarters, but the statistics of the last ten years reveal a sorry tale of ineptitude from Italian clubs in Europe’s showpiece tournament.
Since the 2005-06, Italian clubs have played 118 matches in the Heineken /Champions Cup. Treviso have appeared in every season, accompanied at various times by Calvisano, Viadana, Aironi and Zebre. Of those 118 matches, there have been six victories, one draw and 111 defeats.
It’s worth repeating – 111 defeats in 118 matches, a mind-boggling statistic, and indisputable proof that no Italian club deserves to be in the Champions Cup. You can’t fault the commitment of the Treviso squad, though you can the club’s fans. Only 4,600 turned up to see the visit of Stade, although that was twice as many who bothered to go and watch Leicester.
A crowd of a couple of thousand makes a mockery of the Champions Cup, particularly when on the same weekend in the Challenge Cup, 8,500 fans watched Grenoble against London Irish and 5,000 Montpellier fans paid to see their boys thrash Calvisano 64-0.
We need to admit that the Great Italian Experiment has failed. The public aren’t interested and the players aren’t up to it, not at club level or in the international arena. Treviso and Zebre prop up the Pro12 table with two wins from 18 matches, and it’s questionable whether they’ll beat last season’s tally of six wins between them. Sure, there are a handful of very good Italian players but not enough to compete with the best that France and the Home Nations have to offer.
Similarly, the national team have, if anything, regressed in recent seasons and one fears for them now that their one world-class player, that old warrior Sergio Parisse, is on the wane. In the 16 years since they were admitted to the Six Nations, Italy have never won more than two matches in a championship, while they have never got out of the group stage of the World Cup.
God knows, they’ve gone through some coaches in an attempt to raise their game – including John Kirwan, Pierre Berbizier, Nick Mallett and Jacques Brunel – and if the rumours are to be believed, Conor O’Shea and Ronan O’Gara could be next in line to take on European rugby’s most unenviable coaching job. My advice, boys, don’t bother.
Italian rugby is going in one direction, and that’s down. Some have argued that it took France a few decades to find their feet after their admittance to the Five Nations in 1910, but such comparisons are tenuous. Rugby a century ago was amateur; in fact it was a hobby more than a sport. Italy have been exposed to the same professional environment as their rivals and welcomed into the same tournaments. But to what end? As the recent World Cup demonstrated, Italy with all the opportunities they’ve been given are light years behind Argentina and Japan. They even struggled to beat Romania, a country that has been as neglected in the last 20 years as Italy have been spoiled.
So it’s time to admit Italy don’t deserve their place at the top table. Relegation should be introduced to the Six Nations to allow Romania and Georgia the chance to replace Italy, while the EPCR needs to stop awarding Italy an automatic spot for the Champions Cup. Treviso never have been and never will be champions.