ITALY ON THE RWC STAGE
As ever-presents at the Rugby World Cup, Italy’s contribution to the tournament is undeniable. While success on the field of play has largely eluded them, Italy had the honour of competing in the first-ever Rugby World Cup match at Eden Park on 22 May 1987, losing 70-6 to New Zealand in a game that reflected the growing global appeal of rugby. John Kirwan’s mesmerising run to the line may have been the standout moment from the match, and indeed the tournament, but Italy’s Swiss-born centre Oscar Collodo will forever have his name in the record books as the first points-scorer in Rugby World Cup history.
Following that opening match in the so-called ‘City of Sails’, Italy’s bid for quarter-final qualification was blown off course by a 25-16 defeat to Argentina. Even victory over Fiji (18-15) was not enough to see them progress as the South Sea Islanders went through instead on a superior try count across the three pool fixtures.
Italy doubled their try tally from the first tournament in their opening match of RWC 1991. With fly half Diego Dominguez pulling the strings at fly half, Italy went on to score four tries against the USA – including a brilliant effort from Ivan Francescato – in a 30-9 victory. The win was hardly on the same scale as the North of England’s famous 1979 win over the touring All Blacks at the same venue, but it set the Azzurri up nicely for a Twickenham showdown with England. Sadly Italy failed to deliver on the big stage and they were beaten 36-6 after being whistled off the park by referee Brian Anderson following a reported 37 infringements. All that was forgotten a few days later in the match against New Zealand as Italy put in a gutsy display to limit the All Blacks to a 10-point win.
An opening defeat at the hands of Samoa at RWC 1995 immediately placed the Italians on the back foot in South Africa. Pride was restored as they matched England’s two-try return in a 27-20 loss, before Argentina were beaten to maintain their record of winning at least one match in each of the three tournaments to date.
That record fell, though, four years later as Italy turned in their worst Rugby World Cup performance. Italy suffered a clean sweep of defeats, an ageing team having no answer to the power of England (67-7) and New Zealand (101-3), nor Tonga, in a match that could have gone either way. Sateki Tu’ipulotu settled the tie in Tonga’s favour (28-25) with a long-range drop goal deep into injury-time.
Tormentor-in-chief turned national team coach John Kirwan took charge for Italy’s 2003 adventure in Australia. Four seasons of Six Nations rugby had improved the Azzurri’s standard of play, but a place in the quarter-finals once again proved elusive. Untimely injuries to key performers such as wing Mirco Bergamasco and second Marco Bortolami hit Italy hard going into their decisive match against Wales and they were beaten 27-15.
Despite being paired with New Zealand for the fifth time in six tournaments, Italy were confident of making the breakthrough and qualifying for the knockout stages of RWC 2007. With Romania and Portugal both beaten, as expected, Italy faced Scotland in St Etienne to decide second place behind the All Blacks. Soon-to-be retired scrum half Alessandro Troncon scored the only try of the do-or-die clash, but he still ended up on the losing side after Chris Paterson booted six penalties in an 18-16 win for the Scots.
After an opening loss to Australia in RWC 2011, buoyed by significant ex-pat support in Nelson Italy managed wins over Russia (53-17) and USA (27-10). For the second tournament running Italy’s destiny would boil down to a deciding match against a fellow Six Nations side, in this case Ireland. Italy were within a score of their opponents at the interval but Ireland rattled off 27 unanswered second-half points to send Italy home.
Hooker Fabio Ongaro holds the unwanted record of being yellow-carded more times (3) than any other player in Rugby World Cup history.
Former head coach John Kirwan has been involved in more Rugby World Cup matches (23) than anyone else (11 as a player for New Zealand, four as Italy coach and eight as Japan coach).
Italy were given a standing ovation by the 15,711 spectators crammed inside Welford Road after a determined performance against New Zealand in 1991, that ended in a 31-21 win for the All Blacks. Italy ‘won’ the second half 18-15 and also became the first side to score a try in the tournament against the defending champions after scores from Marcello Cuttitta and Massimo Bonomi.
New Zealand beat Italy 101-3 with what was effectively a second team. Jeff Wilson – one of only four regulars in the All Blacks line-up – scored a hat-trick, and in doing so broke John Kirwan's longstanding New Zealand try-scoring record.
“For a moment I thought I must have been the most stupid captain in the history of Italy, but then I remembered that Fabio Ongaro had also been captain and I told myself that there had been at least one worse than me.” – Martin Castrogiovanni on becoming captain as Sergio Parisse left the field in the RWC 2011 match with Russia.
Legendary Italian scrum half Alessandro Troncon finally broke his finally broke his Rugby World Cup try-scoring duck at the 14th attempt when he touched down against Scotland at RWC 2007 - his 101st and final Test for the Azzurri. Of all the other try-scorers in the history of the tournament only former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick had to wait longer (15 matches) for his first score.