Italy's false dawn: The 20-year deceleration of the Azzurri

It is 20 years in March since the key breakthrough made by Italy during the 1990s, an era of firsts for Italian rugby. The Azzurri had spent the 1980s struggling in the middle ranks of continental rugby, in FIRA championships trailing not only perennial powers France and Romania but the upwardly mobile Soviet Union, and glancing nervously back at potential pursuers like Poland and Spain. But they would finish the 1990s as the Sixth Nation in waiting, a new status reflecting their results across the decade.

The Italians were undoubtedly beneficiaries of the creation of the World Cup, making an excellent impression in 1987 with their performances against Argentina and Fiji, then in 1991 scaring the All Blacks with a brilliant final quarter in front of an ecstatically disbelieving crowd at Welford Road. The final margin of 31-21 a spectacular improvement on the 70-6 inflicted by the New Zealanders in the first ever World Cup match four years earlier.

Yet perhaps their most important result of 1991 was a much lower-key affair in April in Bucharest when an injury time try by back row Giancarlo Pivetta, converted by fullback Luigi Troiani gave them a 21-18 victory over Romania. It was their first win in Romania for 38 years and signalled a shift in the balance of continental power, with Italy overtaking the Romanians as the chief challengers to France.

Next up in the list of firsts was a victory over one of the established nations. It might have happened in Brisbane in 1994 where the reigning world champions Australia -- John Eales, David Campese, Michael Lynagh and all -- trailed until 15 minutes from time before scraping home 23-20 with a late penalty. Instead it was the Irish -- enduring the worst decade in their history -- who were the fall guys, going down 22-12 in Rome in May 1995, the coup de grace administered by a late try from dashing fullback Paolo Vaccari.

The next few years would see two more defeats of the Irish, a win over Scotland in 1998, a succession of tight clashes with Wales, and England desperately relieved to escape with a 23-15 win from a World Cup qualifier at Huddersfield.

All were significant moments in the rise of the Italian game. But some firsts inevitably matter more than others [ask the Irish...]. The undoubted highlight of the Azzuri's golden decade came on March 22 1997 at the Stade Lesdigueres in Grenoble.

In rugby terms, France has been more than a mere neighbour to Italy. It was students studying in France who first brought the game back to Italy. France -- in its era of exile from the Five Nations in the 1930s -- was the first established nation to give them a game.

Yet France's attitude to Italy varied over time. In the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Italy was a full-cap international for which it would pick as strong a team as possible, but that stopped after a 60-13, 11 try stomping at Toulon in 1967. From then on the Italians faced 'A' teams or occasional Espoirs.

What did not change was that France went on winning. It was cause for celebration in Italy when they managed a 6-6 draw at Rovigo in 1983, still more when they actually won 16-9 -- with Diego Dominguez kicking 11 points -- at Treviso in 1993. Given that it was the first time Italy had beaten any team calling itself France in 45 meetings, they were entitled to their celebration.

As 'A' teams went, it was not among the stronger. None of the French team had appeared in the 1993 Five Nations. Only two would play any part, and they only a single match apiece at the end of the season, in 1994.

But, along with Italy's feats elsewhere, it was enough to prompt a French rethink. There was one more 'A' match, but when the two countries met in the Latin Cup in Argentina in 1995, France put out a full team, which won 34-22, taking their all-time head-to-head record in full internationals to 18-0.

Their next meeting was two years later at Grenoble. It was a match that mattered, the final of the FIRA championship with Italy, runner-up on nine previous occasions, seeking a first ever title. France had only a week earlier clinched the Grand Slam, following a spectacular second-half come-back to beat England 23-20 at Twickenham with a 47-20 thumping of Scotland in Paris.

Maybe France were tired and gripped by a sense of anti-climax. But they still fielded eight of the Slam-clinchers including five of the pack and both half-backs. And this was an era of serious French depth -- they would make as many changes again before the following Five Nations season, and still carry off another Grand Slam.

Italy, by contrast, had not played since beating Ireland 37-29 in Dublin in January. Thirteen of that team played at Grenoble, with recalls for skipper Massimo Giovanelli and brilliant centre Ivan Francescato, who had both missed the Dublin match injured.

Italy were "Strong in defence, well organised and highly motivated", according to one French account which reckoned "Their rugby was alert, dynamic and with fine sequences of attacking play. France were made to look ordinary."

The first hint of what was to come came from Francescato, slicing through for a characteristic solo score in the first few minutes before limping off injured. France hit back with a penalty try. Dominguez and France's David Aucagne exchanged penalties in pairs and it was 13-13 just before half-time when Italy took the lead with the first of two further moments of attacking brilliance. When they were awarded a penalty close to the French posts scrum-half Alessandro Troncon risked the loss of three certain points to grab seven, taking a quick tap to send Australian-born flanker Julian Gardner charging over. Italy led 20-13 at the break.

France pulled back to 20-20 shortly after the break, and then came another great Italian moment as fullback Javier Pertile and Vaccari, playing on the wing, broke out of defence. As Corriere dello Sport reported: "A counter-attack from the 22. A risk, or plain crazy? Simply, though, the beginning of a dream."

Vaccari dummied to break into midfield where he found wing Marcello Cuttita, a veteran of the 1987 World Cup. He in turn found Troncon whose pass sent second row Gianbattista Croci, who had somehow kept up with the speedy backs, to the line.

This try -- the sort of thing France expected to do to opponents like Italy rather than have done to them -- appears to have broken French spirits. Dominguez converted then added two more penalties before Vaccari -- conspicuous in any Italian team for his wedge of fair hair but even more for his brilliance in attack -- added another try. Two late French tries by wing Pierre Bondouy and full-back Jean-Luc Sadourny served only as damage limitation as Italy finished 40-32 winners.

There are doubtless some Frenchmen who still remember the day with some affection. It was the first of 42 occasions on which Fabien Pelous, who had also played in the French A team beaten by Italy four years earlier, led his country. And Serge Betsen -- both a harbinger of new sources of talent as a Parisian of African descent and destined to be one of the outstanding back rowers of the following decade -- made his debut as a replacement for Arnaud Costes in the last 15 minutes.

But this was Italy's day, a double-first in that they were both conquerors of their most cherished rival and champions of continental Europe for the first time, its importance shown in the tears of veterans like Giovanelli and Vaccari. It was also the moment at which Italy's case for inclusion in an extended Six Nations became unanswerable -- showing that they were capable of beating not only the weakest team of the existing five, but the strongest. Their election was ratified in Paris the following January.

Twenty years on this remains one of the great moments in Italian rugby history. That it still ranks quite so high is perhaps a disappointment -- the hope when they were elected was that there would have been many more moments to rank with, or even above, it. But Giovanelli, Francescato, Vaccari and their team-mates can hardly be blamed for the failings of their successors. This was their day of days, and it remains one to be cherished.