Italy's time in the Six Nations has been anything but plain sailing
For many rugby fans, all they will ever have known is the Six Nations, but it was previously the Five Nations before the turn of the century.
Prior to 2000, the tournament was contested between England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales until Italy joined the party.
When and why did Italy join Six Nations?
But why were the Azzurri added to the great championship?
Believe it or not and contrary to recent evidence, Italy were introduced after a period of notching notable scalps against Five Nations sides.
In 1997, they registered victories home and away against Ireland and also beat France and Scotland, who would go on to win the final Five Nations in 1999.
Italy’s cause was further boosted on the opening day of the 1998 tournament. With an odd number of teams, Wales used their off-week to sharpen up against Italy and only scraped a narrow 23-20 win in Llanelli.
Their cause could be ignored no longer and they were eventually welcomed into the tournament, which also served to create a nice symmetry of three games per weekend.
And they could hardly have enjoyed a batter start to life in the Six Nations. In the opening game of the 2000 tournament, Italy toppled reigning Five Nations champions Scotland 34-20 at the Stadio Olimpico.
That would be as good as it got, however, as four subsequent losses saw Italy finish bottom of the table.
Since then, their place in the tournament has come under scrutiny amid consistently poor results and long losing streaks.
Read more: Italy Six Nations squad
Only once have Italy won back-to-back games, while they have been left with the wooden spoon 18 times in 24 appearances. The Italians even went on a 36-game losing run until a victory against Wales in 2022 snapped that streak.
They ran a number of teams close in 2023 but ultimately went through another championship winless. There is, however, a belief that things could be on the up. Italy came agonisingly short of beating England in the first round of fixtures in 2024 and did so employing an entertaining brand of rugby.
At club level, there is also growing momentum. The two professional sides – Benetton and Zebre – are made up of a big majority of Italians and play in the United Rugby Championship, with the former sitting second behind only Leinster at the time of writing.
Both are also through to the last 16 of the Challenge Cup, which can only be a positive in gaining exposure to higher-level rugby and hopefully inspiring a new generation into the sport.
The challenge now is to maintain and build on that momentum. They, and other national sides, have found ways to beat better teams on paper in the past and that is what the Azzurri must now try to do on a more regular basis if they are to become a real force to be reckoned with.