This month I became an honorary Italian for an afternoon! Singing the Italian national anthem, arm in arm with fellow supporters, I watched Italy storm to an historic victory against France at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. It was only the third time Italy have ever beaten their rivals and the second time at home. The atmosphere was electric!
The annual Six Nations Rugby Championship is contested by six European countries, including England, France and Italy, playing 15 bone-crunching games over 5 rounds. I’ve wanted to watch an international match from the stands rather than the sofa for years but tickets in the UK can be expensive unless you have a “corporate entertainment” budget! Which made me think. What about marrying my passion for all things Italian with my love of rugby? What about watching Italy play at home in Rome?
Its fun to travel with company, but this was a solo adventure so before you could say “single supplement” I was trawling the internet for orphan seats which started at just £15! Italy had three home games playing France, Wales and Ireland. The opener would be a grudge match as Italy won their last home game against France 22 v 21 in the last seconds of play in 2011. Could be tasty!! For less than the price of a decent seat at Twickenham I booked a 3 night stay in the EternalCity and a halfway line ticket for the game.
Match day Rome was bathed in early spring sunshine as Britain suffered arctic snowstorms. The streets were dotted with French fans on their way to the game. Cockerel-hatted French fans drank Peroni alongside tricolour mohicaned Italians in the fanzone outside the stadium as everyone soaked up the pre-match warm-up.
Turnstiles control access to the hallowed home to football legends AS Roma, Lazio and now Italian rugby with helpful security staff keeping queues down. Seating was clearly signposted and easy to find. Not even a waterlogged seat could dampen my spirits! (Top tip : take a newspaper, it makes a great sponge/cushion!)
Finally the teams ran out in front of an almost packed house including 400 ex-Italian national players spurring them on to victory. Italian captain Sergio Parisse, arguably the best number 8 in the world, would later say that it was one of his proudest moments to play in front of his heroes.
And so to the anthems. The Marseillaise was sung with French pride and gusto. The Italian to the right of me then put his arm around my shoulders to sing Fratelli D’Italia, Brothers of Italy. I joined in as best I could as we called Italian brothers to join the cohort and be ready to fight! “Siam pronti alla morte!”, we’re ready to die, came the roar! To battle!
France and Italy have a long history. This time Italy came out like a steam train and within 5 minutes had scored. The stadium erupted! Italy don’t usually play like this! But the French weren’t phased and replied in style. Italy continued to play out of their skins but France nosed ahead to seal the half-time score at 13 v 15.
Possession and points continued to flip flop in the second half. Could Italy sustain this level of play or would they collapse, as usual? France scored from a penalty but Italy responded with a try to go 5 points ahead with just 12 minutes to go. France only needed a try to pull level. Could Italy hold it together?
The last ten minutes lasted an eternity and I suspect a few Italian hearts stopped as they held the French off. It was edge of the seat stuff as the clock went dead.
64,000 spectators held their breath as France made a final gigantic push but Italy stood strong to finally claim the match. They’d played refreshingly clean, attacking rugby throughout the entire match and the crowd went wild! Nobody could bring themselves to leave as players applauded the fans and celebrations continued in the fanzone into the evening.
Days like this don’t come that often for Italy but it felt like they had signalled a shift in gear for the tournament. If Italy can play like this, they really have joined the big boys! I wonder what they can do when Wales visit this afternoon? Forza azzurri, come on blues!