The NatWest 6 Nations returns from the second of two rest weeks on Saturday and with three sides still firmly in the hunt for Championship glory, fans have much to look forward to in Round Four.
While Ireland remain the only side still chasing the elusive and coveted Grand Slam, Scotland and England are eyeing their own chances of success in another enthralling series.
England travel to Paris to take on a once again winning France while Scotland make the trip to Dublin in a bid to scupper Ireland’s ambitions for series domination on Saturday.
Sunday sees an experimental Welsh side welcome Conor O’Shea’s Italy that is seeking their first points of the competition, a just reward for some expansive and, at times, irresistible attacking endeavour.
Ever the whipping boys of the greatest Test series in world rugby, Italy have endured persistent questions about the top tier credentials in the sport. With Georgia sitting two places above the Azzurri in the world rankings, there is a growing sentiment that the eastern European country deserves a shot in the Six Nations, at the expense of an Italian side that has not won in the competition since their defeat of Scotland all the way back in 2015.
Since then it has been defeat after defeat as the football-mad nation struggles to establish itself as a rugby power. While the appointment of Conor O’Shea has delivered some green shoots as he looks to develop the sport from the ground up, on the international Test stage, things remain bleak.
The latest iteration of the Six Nations has seen Italy deliver some impressive attacking moments that have resulted in an impressive seven tries to date, joint third with Wales behind Ireland and England.
While they are showing their threat going forward, it is their defence where they have been let down. O’Shea has certainly made inroads into the gap between Italy and the rest, though it is likely going to be another few years before they can routinely challenge Europe’s top sides.
Throughout the ups and downs, Italy’s captain Sergio Parisse has been in the thick of things. A man ahead of his time in Italy, the now 34-year-old Stade Francais number 8 has been an aberration in the blue jersey.
The world-class back-row forward should never have come from a nation that has until recent years rated rugby as something of a nothing sport behind football.
Yet, Parisse has consistently delivered time and again, often dragging and driving his compatriots forward. It is fair to say that when he retires, he will be remembered as a great not only of Italian rugby but also of world rugby.
Despite this, the ageing captain is now approaching a most unwanted of milestones. With over 130 caps to his name, the Argentina born forward has tasted defeat an astonishing 98 times in his international career with the Azzurri.
Facing fixtures against Wales and then Scotland in the final rounds of this Six Nations, there is now every chance he could become the owner of 100 defeats with his country.
While memorable victories over France and Ireland in 2013, Scotland in 2015 and South Africa as recently as 2016 serve as encouraging glimmers of what could be, the gloom of a near century of defeats casts a dark shadow over what has been a long career filled with disappointment.
It scarcely seems fair that a man whose stature is comparable to the greatest captains of the sport should possess a record that puts him into an unfortunate territory that he alone occupies.
It is inevitable that he will reach this unfortunate milestone before he retires but it is the measure of the man that it does not appear to dampen his enthusiasm or ambition for his beloved Italy to succeed.
Defeat after defeat has not broken the Azzurri’s ‘Paul O’Connell’. He continues to inspire those around him to do better, to want more. Though he will not see it in his time, his legacy will be such that he will become a foundation for the next generation to aspire to and build success upon.
Under Conor O’Shea, Italy are indeed improving and based on the performances of Benetton Treviso and Zebre in the PRO14 this term, a brighter future does indeed lie ahead.
It will come too late for Parisse but like a true leader, you will not hear him complain. His stoic selflessness will continue to inspire and challenge those emerging on the international stage.
Such it is with all great leaders. Sergio Parisse will be remembered as a modern day great of the game and 100 defeats will pale to insignificance when compared to all he has done for his country.