6 February 2005

It was shivering cold on that December afternoon in Calvisano and only a few hundred spectators had braved the frost to watch the match with unrated Parma. It seemed about as far as possible from the roars of Twickenham or the Stade de France but it took just 45 seconds to spot the link. It was a slim young winger called Ludovico Nitoglia who scored after just two passes from the kick-off. Ireland had better watch him this afternoon.

For Italian rugby, Ludovico is the real thing. Born in Rome, just 21 years ago last October, rugby has always been his game. He played for Italy at under-19 and under-21 level and for the main side in the victories against both Canada and USA in the autumn as well as scoring in the defeat by New Zealand.

Today will be his Six Nations debut but don’t expect it to phase him. For while Leicester administered a 62-10 Heineken Cup drubbing when they visited Calvisano last month, it was Nitoglia who got on the scoresheet, just as he did in Sicily against an All-Stars team in Italy’s final warm up match last weekend.

Ludovico is not quite 6ft and hardly weighs 12 st but he has the quickness of step and the eye for a gap which spells tries and excitement at any level. Italian rugby could hardly want him more. For while they have made valiant progress since that dream opening victory against Scotland in Rome’s Stadio Flaminio five years ago this month, Italy have had to rely on foreign coaching and overseas registration.

Indeed it was the great Diego Dominguez who was the fly-half architect of that triumph over Scotland but he was only as Italian as anyone born in Cordoba and having his first two caps for his native Argentina could be.

Of course there have been considerable home grown personalities in the Italian side. At Calvisano Paolo Vaccari still stands firm at full-back just as he did that first glorious day against Scotland when Italy were captained by Treviso’s Alessandro Troncon, who has made up his rift with Kiwi coach John Kirwan to return to the Azzuri today.

But Nitoglia offers something else. In a nation where rugby is either considered oafish or not considered at all, he is all speed and glamour. Yes, soccer worshippers, rugby can be sexy too. Strangely enough the most alluring of all Italy’s overseas players was also in the Calvisano team that freezing afternoon before Christmas.

And while Diego Dominguez did not come to Europe until he was 23, Parana-born Martin Castrogiovanni had more than a dozen caps for Italy, by then having made his debut against the All Blacks in the summer tour of 2002.

Castrogiovanni is a prop and not a small one either. At 6ft 3in and 17 st, and with a braided head of hair even Bob Marley would have envied, he doesn’t fancy taking a backward step for anyone. After he crashed in three tries in Italy’s 32-19 defeat of Japan in Tokyo last summer, Kirwan said: “He’s like Samson, we are never going to cut his hair,” before adding: “He showed us why he can be one of the world’s best players in his position.”

Italian rugby has a long way to go. But the road from Calvisano to Cardiff, Dublin, London and Paris is not as long as it seemed. If the “Nitoglio” rocket fires and the Castrogiovanni “Samson” heaves, then it is possible that something more than just the Irish temple might fall this afternoon.

The whole Italian nation might begin to realise that rugby, too, has its fables and that they can have their own version of Beauty and the Beast.

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