With almost a century of appearances to his name over an illustrious 16-year international career, Andrea Masi’s place in Italian rugby folklore has never been in question.
From his first cap as an 18-year-old in 1999 to his last at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the versatile back always gave his all for his country when wearing the Azzurri jersey.
But it is not just his longevity that earns him a place amongst Italy’s greats – Masi also played a leading role in some of the biggest moments in his country’s rugby history.
And as Italy’s first-ever Player of the Championship winner, it is no surprise that he is widely regarded as one of the best players to feature in Rugby’s Greatest Championship.
To celebrate the Six Nations’ 20th anniversary, you can form your Greatest XV on the Guinness Six Nations app and choose from more than 150 players, including Andrea Masi.
While injury curtailed his storied career and left him on 95 caps, his retirement in 2016 evoked tributes that went some way to describing his impact on Italian rugby.
Italian rugby president Alfredo Gavazzi said: “Andrea has been a great professional, a magnificent player, an example to follow for our youngsters. Italy will miss him a lot.”
A STAR IS BORN
It did not take long for Italy to realise Masi’s talent. Born in Abruzzo, east of Rome, his rise through the ranks was quick after he represented local side L’Aquila aged 16.
He was handed his international debut two years later in 1999 in a World Cup warm-up game against Spain, making an instant impression with a try from full-back.
Although it was not enough to earn him a spot in the squad for the tournament, Masi remained around the Italy team for the next few years before his Championship debut arrived.
Masi had already watched on from the stands at the Stadio Flaminio when Italy made their Six Nations bow and his time eventually came three years later at Twickenham.
Making just his second appearance for his country, Masi came off the bench against England after just 15 minutes having only been a late addition to the matchday squad.
From that first taste of Championship action, Masi didn’t look back. He made two more appearances during the 2003 edition before being named in the squad for that year’s World Cup.
STRINGS TO HIS BOW
Masi soon established himself as a prominent member of an exciting, young Azzurri team, scoring his first Championship try against Wales in Cardiff in the 2004 competition.
As his reputation continued to grow, Masi’s versatility soon became evident as he was given Test starts in every position in the backline except scrum-half over the next few years.
Following an injury-disrupted 2005/06 season, he was even given a runout at fly-half by new coach Nick Mallet during the 2008 Championship – starting all five games at No.10.
While the experiment did not lead to a lasting position change, Masi credited it with improving his vision and timing when he returned to his more familiar position at full-back in 2009.
His positional merry-go-round did not stop there, though, as Masi spent much of the 2010 Championship on the wing as he helped Italy to a fine 16-12 victory over Scotland.
He remained on the wing for the start of the 2011 Championship before moving back to full-back, where he enjoyed his greatest moment for his country against France in Rome.
PLAYER OF THE CHAMPIONSHIP
Italy had lost their opening three games of Rugby’s Greatest Championship in 2011 before welcoming Les Bleus to the Stadio Flaminio in the penultimate round.
But there had been signs of encouragement in near misses against Ireland and Wales in Rome earlier in the Championship as they bid for their first Six Nations win against France.
Yet they were left with a mountain to climb when Vincent Clerc and Morgan Parra tries appeared to put the visitors on course for victory, giving Les Bleus a 18-6 lead with half an hour left.
Masi had other ideas, though. Restored to full-back, he turned the match on its head on 59 minutes when he snuck down the blindside to go over in the corner for the decisive try.
Mirco Bergamasco’s touchline conversion and subsequent three penalties sealed a famous 22-21 victory for Italy but it was Masi’s match-winning intervention that earned the plaudits.
And he was at it again in the following round’s match-up against Scotland, scoring once again as he took the Player of the Championship title for his series of impressive performances.
INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION
After becoming first Italian to be named Player of the Championship, Masi continued to go from strength to strength and was selected for a third consecutive World Cup in 2011.
He also contributed to another Championship victory against Scotland the following year, which laid the groundwork for Italy’s memorable showing in the 2013 edition.
Starting against France, Masi and Co recorded a stunning 23-18 triumph over the title favourites at the Stadio Olimpico before scaring England at Twickenham in Round Four.
But the Azzurri saved their best until last as they overcame Ireland 22-15 in Rome to bookend their Championship in style, finishing fourth in the table above the two teams they defeated.
Masi continued to rack up the caps in the 2014 and 2015 Championships, making what would prove to be his final Six Nations appearance against Wales in the latter.
And while injury brought his playing career to an end after the 2015 World Cup, his legacy as one of Italy’s finest players will forever be etched into the Championship history books.