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Inspired by their piratical leader, Italy swagger into the spotlight

We had booked the restaurant, just off the Piazza di Spagna, with a celebration in mind.

Giampiero De Carli thunders over to score Italy's only try against Scotland in Flaminio stadium, though the game was won elsewhere. Picture: Getty Images
Giampiero De Carli thunders over to score Italy's only try against Scotland in Flaminio stadium, though the game was won elsewhere. Picture: Getty Images

And a celebration was exactly what we had. Just not the one we had planned.

For instead of hitting the Montepulciano in honour of Scotland's expected and comfortable victory over Italy, the glasses were being raised to the home side that Saturday evening 14 years ago, for the Azzurri had announced their arrival in the newly-expanded Six Nations Championship with a stunning 34-20 win.

The scale of the upset could be measured by the fact that, in the build-up to the game, the Scottish Rugby Union had issued a stern and po-faced communiqué to travelling supporters, warning that the local police would take a dim view if they started dancing in the fountains - the unexpressed assumption being that those kilted frolickers would have something to celebrate in the first place. As things turned out, events in the Stadio Flaminio on February 5, 2000 gave Scottish fans more reasons to top themselves in the Tiber than even think of trying a tango in the Trevi.

If it could go wrong for Scotland, it did. Their performance on that bright afternoon unfolded as a catalogue of cock-ups, calamities, bungles and blunders. They had come into the game as winners of the final Five Nations championship, a triumph that had been grasped in a sizzle of self-confidence as they laid waste to France in Paris 10 months earlier, and they had the reassuring figure of Ian McGeechan, the Lion King himself, back as head coach. But their day in Rome went more pear-shaped than a frangipane as they came up against an Italian side who played like men possessed.

None more so than Massimo Giovanelli. It would downplay the batterings - both on and off the pitch - that Giovanelli had taken over the years to describe him as battle-scarred, but there was something marvellous about his piratical bearing that day. He cut a gloriously stroppy figure, socks around his ankles, blood pouring from a head wound and raw menace in his eyes, as he drove Italy on.

With a sickening, albeit almost poetic, irony, it would be Giovanelli's last game for Italy, for he suffered the head injury that ended his Test career, but has any player ever departed the international stage in such a blaze of pure and utterly deserved glory?

For Giovanelli, the game was a fulfilment of destiny. Over the previous decade, he had been the heart, the soul and the driving force of Italy's charge into rugby's mainstream. Pinch-featured officials from the Five Nations' old guard had stood foursquare against Italy's admission into the sport's cosy closed shop, but the magnificence of players like Giovanelli made their case compelling. There was a sense of poignancy, too, for in preparation for the match the Italians had frequently invoked the name of Ivan Francescato, the brilliant Treviso scrum-half/centre, who had died suddenly of a heart attack the previous year at the age of 32.

Above all else, though, Italy's victory was an emphatic repudiation of the argument that they had no right to be part of rugby's oldest and most prestigious international tournament. That claim had been gathering force as Italy, having finally won the right to sit at international rugby's top table, appeared to ease off, seemingly believing that all the hard work had been done. In their final match before their Six Nations debut, in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, they had lost 101-3 to New Zealand. The worry was that the great side they had grown through the early years of the 1990s was well past its sell-by date.

And maybe, in a sense, it was. The figureheads of that great Italian side were all in the evenings of their careers. They had hauled their country through, established Italy as a credible force, but the end was nigh for many of them. Lock Carlo Chacchinato, prop Giampiero de Carli and the brilliant, diminutive fly-half Diego Dominguez carried on for two or three seasons more, but there was a sense that their work was done, that this was their swansong, their moment of long-awaited glory.

For Scotland, though, it was an unmitigated disaster. Optimism was high following their 1999 triumph, and a decent World Cup performance later that year, but significant changes had since taken place. Jim Telfer, the wily coach, had made way for McGeechan. Gary Armstrong, the heartbeat and captain of the side, had left the international arena as well. So, too, had Alan Tait.

Scotland were running on faith.Disastrously, they had chosen John Leslie at inside centre, the position he had occupied so brilliantly the previous year, and had handed him the captaincy as well. This, despite the fact he had not played a match for more than three months and had not even been able to train until a few days earlier.

"Geech should never have made him captain," said Gregor Townsend some years later. "Perhaps [Leslie], like all of us, thought that the wonderful rugby we had played the year before would just happen as soon as we got back together again. We were in for a rude awakening."

Indeed they were. Corriere dello Sport, the Italian sports paper, had helpfully provided an idiot's guide to the basics of the game in its morning edition that day, but there were many in the Scottish side who had clearly forgotten a few essentials. Kenny Logan missed a couple of early kicks, and, as the Scots' game began to come apart, confidence surged through the Italian side.

Logan's nightmare became a dream day for Dominguez. Like many in his side, Dominguez was far nearer the end of his career than the beginning, but the little fly-half, who had also played two Tests for Argentina, offered up a master-class in game management with six penalties, three dropped goals and a conversion for an individual haul of 29 points, a Five/Six Nations record.

Scotland actually won the try count 2-1, with touchdowns by Martin Leslie and Gordon Bulloch. But little else went right for them. "We lost our shape and, soon after that, our hopes of winning the match," recalled Townsend. "[It] was one of the worst results from a Scottish team in living memory."

Fortunately, there were many Scots in Rome who were only too happy to obliterate that memory as soon as humanly possible.

And, on one of the great evenings, to salute Italy's greatest day.

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