It’s been 30 years since Italy came closest to the All Blacks in their history. It wasn’t at Eden Park or Stadio Olimpico, but at Leicester’s modest Welford Road stadium. The All Blacks’ 31-21 victory came as a shock and suggested that all was not well within the team, which would later be sensationally knocked out of the tournament by the Wallabies in the semi-final.
That was a lifetime ago. Watching the highlights of that game is essentially seeing a different sport to the one played today, with some of the players tiny and the rules pretty unintelligible to anyone under the age of 40. It’s probably the reason why the plucky Italian side managed to get within 10 points, because it was much easier in those days to fire up and stick with a team that simply wasn’t having a great game.
That isn’t going to happen on tomorrow morning in Rome. Out of all the All Black tests announced this year, this was the one that was going to be hardest to get excited about, because the multitude of evidence points to a comfortable All Black victory and kickoff is scheduled for 2am NZT. They have visited The Eternal City three times in the last nine years and hammered their hosts in all those tests, with the side named (bizarrely at midnight) looking like you can put 50 points on the scoreboard already.
Meanwhile, Italian rugby is where it usually is. They are on their third coach in two years, this time it’s All Black and Taranaki battler Kieran Crowley who was in that World Cup squad in 1991 and has taken up the seemingly insurmountable challenge of making Italy into an actual, proper force in world rugby. Unfortunately for him, he’s got the toughest possible start – this game is his first in charge and his approach has been thoroughly pragmatic. Crowley knows they have no hope and just wants to keep the score down, before he attempts to rebuild something out of the ruins he’s been left with, which by now are fittingly ancient.
The Italian situation is why so many of our eyes roll back in our heads when we hear about the growth of the game in places like the USA. Rugby has been played in Italy for over a century and they’ve been in the Six Nations for two decades, and while they pull off the odd result like when they somehow beat the Springboks in 2016, they are very much a basket case. Whatever is being done to make the game sustainable and successful isn’t working, so clearly some new ideas are needed.
The test isn’t even the biggest All Black story of the week, anyway. Carl Hayman’s admission that he is suffering from early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has sent another shockwave through the game, with the former highest paid player in the world joining a class action lawsuit against World Rugby and other governing bodies. They’re saying that they weren’t protected from the risk of concussion, when those in charge had full knowledge of what was going to happen when you send 30 players flying into each other for 80 minutes, up to a couple of dozen times a year.
The most telling part of Hayman’s situation is highlighted by the fact that players like him “don’t understand what’s happening and have no support network to lean on.” The more players know, the better it’s going to get, but conversely the more parents know about the inherent risks of playing, the less likely they’re going to encourage their kids to start playing in the first place.
Given that the NFL paid out almost US$765 million to former players over the same issue back in 2013, Hayman and his fellow players’ case looks pretty strong. So that’s why it puts Italy’s woes and probable hiding against the All Blacks in perspective, because rugby as a whole has something far, far bigger to worry about.
* It might be the hardest Test to get excited about, but Jamie Wall will still be live-blogging the game at 2am tonight, at rnz.co.nz/sport.