In international rugby, as in life, first impressions count – and Italy could hardly have made a more impressive introduction to life in the Championship 21 years ago today.
February 5, 2000 marked the start of a new era for the historic competition as Five Nations became Six, Italy joining the established quintet of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France.
The Azzurri’s first assignment was a home game against Scotland, fresh from winning the Championship in 1999 and looking to begin a successful title defence with victory over the newcomers.
But inspired by talismanic fly-half Diego Dominguez and roared on by a raucous Rome crowd, Italy recorded one of the biggest shocks in Championship history and showed their northern hemisphere rivals they were not to be taken lightly.
SCOTLAND OFF TO SHAKY START
The ominous signs for the defending champions were present almost from the outset in the Italian capital.
After Kenny Logan missed two presentable early penalties, visiting captain John Leslie was forced to leave the field through injury in the 12th minute.
Scotland did break the deadlock through a drop goal from Gregor Townsend, now his country’s head coach, but the hosts hit back and went in front through a quickfire pair of Dominguez penalties.
A stroke of fortune saw the visitors cross for the first try of the match, Gordon Bulloch dotting down under the posts after the ball spilled forward off Gordon Metcalfe’s boot in contact, and Logan got off the mark for the afternoon with the simple conversion.
Back came Italy and Dominguez, who capitalised on Scottish ill-discipline to slot two more penalties and ensure his team took a slender 12-10 lead into the interval.
DEADLY DOMINGUEZ MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
Italy’s mercurial No.10 upped his game yet further after the break to take the game away from the shell-shocked visitors.
A drop goal from 35 metres out was swiftly followed by another from 10 metres further back to extend the lead to eight points, which could have been cut to five – but Logan’s difficult afternoon continued as he missed a fourth straight penalty attempt.
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Dominguez showed how it was done with two more successful three-pointers off the tee, sandwiching a Townsend penalty as the fly-half took over kicking duties, and a third superb drop goal sealed a memorable hat-trick with 10 minutes to play.
If there was one thing lacking from Italy’s day to remember, it was a try – step forward Giampiero de Carli.
The prop powered over late on to put the icing on the cake for the hosts, whose fans in the Stadio Flaminio were savouring every moment of their incredible first game in Championship rugby.
Following Dominguez’s inevitable conversion, which took his individual tally for the afternoon to 29 points, Martin Leslie crossed for a consolation try which did little to dampen the party atmosphere in Rome.
AZZURRI PROVE CRITICS WRONG
Italy’s 34-20 win remains one of the best opening weekend matches in the history of the Championship, whether contested with Five Nations or Six.
Head coach Brad Johnstone was understandably delighted with his side’s display and hailed his players for forcing those who had doubted the decision to promote Italy into the Championship to eat their words.
“I thought of we were going to win a game, it would be this one because everyone expected us to be useless,” he said.
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“Opinion in Britain even questioned whether Italy should be in the competition. I feel sorry for the Scots that they had to face us first.
“We worked on our basics; the scrum, second-phase rucking and mauling and defence. It’s like putting down the foundation for a house before you build the walls.”
Whether it’s the presence of a gifted fly-half – Paolo Garbisi following in Dominguez’s footsteps – or the fact they are at home in Round 1, there are certain parallels for the Azzurri to take hope from going into their clash with France this weekend.
By 4pm on Saturday, Italian fans will hope they can add a victory to the list of similarities.