Paris blunder puts Parisse under pressure vs. England

Italy landed in Rome last Sunday having suffered another defeat on French soil but with plenty to cheer about. The 23-21 loss in Saint Denis was the lowest margin the Italians had lost by in Paris since the launch of the Six Nations in 2000.

Indeed, it was the only single-digit margin of defeat in that time and, more importantly, it represented the first time the Azzurri had a real shot at victory in a fixture that has traditionally been out of their reach.

But when the match-winning moment arrived, Italy froze. And Sergio Parisse attempted a drop goal that has left the nation scratching its head.

The Italy captain was one of the main protagonists on the pitch in Saint Denis. He scored a try, set up the second one and was at the centre of an enormous number of plays, both in attack and in defence -- just as he was on his debut against the All Blacks in Hamilton, way back in 2002.

Since then he has been a key factor in almost every Test he has played, becoming Italy's second-most capped player of all time -- one appearance off the record -- its most-capped captain and without doubt the most talented player to wear the blue shirt.

Parisse has won French titles, reached European finals, been selected for the most illustrious invitational teams, and even received a nomination for the 2013 IRB Player of the Year. Put simply, he is the best player Italy has ever produced.

Based on his experience, then, one could easily argue the merit of his decision to force a drop goal out of nothing, in a key area, with role-kickers on the pitch and with no seconds on the clock. But, having watched that play dozens of times, I still do not know why he decided to do it.

As a leader, is a captain not supposed to take decisions for the good of his teammates? The miss has divided opinion in Italy on Parisse, but not for the first time. Last summer he took on the Italian Rugby Federation over Rugby World Cup bonuses. There was even a suggestion he had influenced Brunel's final selection for the tournament. Yet the vast majority of Italians stood with their captain.

On Saturday, though, it was different. For the very first time a huge number of fans expressed their annoyance at his decision as they took to social media, openly accusing Parisse of selfishness. That was unprecedented and has created a sense of disarray in Italian rugby -- no matter how positive the performance against France was -- with England looming large as the visitors this weekend.

We don't know what went through Parisse's mind last Saturday in Paris. We never will. But what we saw was a team who had run out of ideas on the key play of a rare, winnable game in France.

And that's the scary part. Blaming Parisse for a huge mistake -- one of very few in his immense career -- is easier than accepting that the team were not well prepared for a last-gasp drop goal, because that really would be pretty embarrassing.

Some progress was undoubtedly made by the Italians -- who were winning in Paris until the final six minutes -- from the Rugby World Cup. First of all they were able to stay in the game until the very end. They also confirmed themselves as world-class scrummagers even with two debutants starting in the front row.

Italy's rolling maul movement for Sergio Parisse's first try was simply devastating, while exciting playmaker Carlo Canna and Michele Campagnaro were part of a backline that was braver, and more resolute, than ever.

That said there were also shadows at the Stade de France. Damien Chouly's try was a horror show, with the flanker benefitting from a lapse in concentration as those in blue remonstrated with referee JP Doyle. Switching off, as Italy did to allow Gael Fickou's quick penalty, is totally unacceptable on the international stage.

Canna, too, missed five kickable and crucial points from the tee, which is unfortunately a recurring problem for Italy. All of which left Parisse, that miss, and a quandary once again for Italian rugby.