After suffering a 70-6 defeat at the hands of Leinster, Zebre are bringing up the rear of the Pro 12 table once again. With Treviso just one place above, it means we could be heading for the two Italian sides at the root of the table for a fourth straight season.
No-one wants to see the Italian sides improving more than me. In fact, I doubt that there is any European rugby fan that doesn’t want to see Italian rugby grow, and everyone (except Georgia) is pretty happy to have them in the Six Nations.
But Friday night’s defeat raised questions about where Italian rugby is actually going. Of course, Italian grassroots rugby is better now than it was 20 years ago, but how long can the Italians coast along at the top of European club and international rugby before people start questioning their place up there?
Leinster were excellent on Friday night, with Johnny Sexton showing his class after his injury layoff, but Gavin Cummiskey of the Irish Times described Zebre as bringing a “tag rugby attitude to Dublin”, and that probably just about sums it up.
And to think that less than four years ago Italy beat France and Ireland as they earned their second top four finish in the Six Nations, with Treviso coming 7th in the Pro 12. At that point, it really did seem like Italian rugby was making progress.
The stats look very different now. Italy head into the Six Nations coming off the back of their worst ever tournament, with their clubs miles adrift at the bottom of the Pro 12 table.
Georgia are demanding promotion and relegation in the Six Nations, or at the very least a play-off to decide who should occupy the sixth spot in the tournament. And who can blame them? They have won nine of the last ten European Nations Cup tournaments, with Italy finishing at the foot of the Six Nations eleven of the 17 times the tournament has taken place.
I’m not saying stop investing in Italian rugby or stop giving them opportunities at the top level. I also don’t think that when they do play against the very best teams, those teams shouldn’t patronise them with sub-par performances. Leinster did exactly what they had to do on Friday night, and played superbly well.
But it’s about time they started proving their place. Perhaps the team that finishes last in the Six Nations should have to earn their place, or the bottom side in the Pro 12 should potentially have a play-off against the winner of the European Challenge Cup qualifying competition.
Because whilst the neutral will always continue to support Italy, many feel they really ought to start earning their place. It is hardly likely the game will grow there if they continue to be beaten week in, week out.
That said, with a new Pro 12 franchise set to replace Zebre in Rome and Conor O’Shea now in charge of the national team, the next twelve months could be very different.
And they have to hope it will be, if Italy have another poor Six Nations and this new club fails to deliver, people will be asking the same questions a year from now, but with a louder voice.
Nick Powell, Pundit Arena