Sergio Parisse: The story of a record-breaker

Four years ago in Toyota, Sergio Parisse should have brought down the curtain on one of the greatest international careers in rugby history.

Four years ago in Toyota, Sergio Parisse should have brought down the curtain on one of the greatest international careers in rugby history.

The Italy legend was due to take on New Zealand in the final group game of the 2019 World Cup, however Typhoon Hagibis led to the game being postponed.

It meant that Parisse never got the final farewell he deserved but take nothing away from what he achieved in 17 years with the Azzurri.

As Italy and New Zealand prepare to meet on the World Cup stage four years on, Parisse’s coaches, captains and teammates have spoken about just what made him such a special player and individual.

But before we get to that, a reminder of what Parisse achieved with Italy. From his debut in 2002 to his final appearance in 2019, the No.8 won 142 caps, the most-ever for the Azzurri and third all-time behind Alun Wyn Jones and Richie McCaw.

His 69 appearances in the Guinness Six Nations are the most of any player while Parisse is also one of just three players ever to appear at five Rugby World Cups.

And to date he is the only Italian to have been nominated for World Rugby’s Men’s Player of the Year, twice making the shortlist in 2009 and 2013.

So, what do those who know Parisse best have to say about him?

John Kirwan – The Italy coach who gave Parisse his debut back in 2002 at the age of just 18 away to New Zealand

“I took over the Italian side and wanted to build a team that would last. It seemed to me that the good Italian sides of the past had gone in generations and the generation that I collected was old and needed to move on. I was very much on the hunt for young people that I felt could be world class. As I’m from Treviso, I’d heard about his dad having a son called Sergio who was very, very good. From my own experience, I got picked at 19 to play for the All Blacks so I felt I had to take some early hits from an experience point of view to get these guys ready to win some football games. We organised a tour of New Zealand that retrospectively looks a bit of a disaster from a results point of view but we debuted guys like Sergio and, though he made mistakes of a person who didn’t have experience, he was certainly world class straightaway.

“I thought he had a really mature head early enough and that he could be a captain. I brought him into some of my decision-making early in the piece.

“I found that the young guys, even without the experience, were better than the old guys in terms of ability. They were way better than the older players but without the experience and some of the Test match toughness. Those boys had the courage of youth and came in and had a dig and didn’t think too much about it.

“One of the memories I have is of our scrum going backwards and him picking it up and beating a couple of guys and making 15 yards. That’s what you want from a No.8, I saw a range of skills, he could pass, he could play the tough game and at that age, I thought if we could keep working on him, he’s going to be very, very good.

“What quite a lot of people don’t understand is the courage it takes to get up every week when you lose and still give it 100. That’s his story, a lot of people will come out of their careers and talk about winning this or winning that, but I doubt too many would have played so long if they had lost so much of the time.

“His first Test against the All Blacks in Hamilton, a young kid getting out there and having a dig. It’s pretty intimidating, a pretty quick rise to facing the All Blacks and he just got out there and had a dig. I’ll always remember that.”

Marco Bortolami – The Italy captain when Parisse first broke into the team who won 111 caps for the Azzurri. Later in his career, he played under Parisse

“You could see straightaway that Sergio was a very skilful player. He was just coming off the Under-21 World Cup and he had no fear and no respect for the older boys. He showed he had a lot of skills and a big personality to play the game.

“I was fairly young as well and that was a time in Italy where we really set the team for the next 10 years.

“Sergio was a very talented player and you can see the way he played rugby, it’s the same in how he led the team. He liked to be on the front line. Sometimes it’s not easy because as a player you have ups and downs and bad days at the office. Credit to Sergio that he never took a step back. He probably should have had more support from other players around him, especially in the last few years but he’s a great character, he’s a person who likes responsibility, so I think he did a great job.

“He’s very demanding on the pitch. His standards are always very high, throughout his career. That wasn’t just when he was a more experienced player, but also when he was young. I think that you gain a lot of respect from the people around you if you have those standards every day. Off the field he is a very easy-going person so you can laugh and play jokes. He’s completely different.”

Leonardo Ghiraldini – Parisse’s teammate for Italy, winning 107 caps and captaining the side when Parisse was absent

“He is a friend first and foremost. He’s an incredible player, everyone knows that. He’s been a key figure for Italian rugby but I think he has been a key figure in every club he has played. He represents Italian rugby in its totality. He’s a natural leader, he was the first to come to the pitch to train and the last to leave the field. He was so focused on his performance before the performance of the others. He wanted to lead by example.

“He was so hard on himself during the game, during training. His focus was to get better every time, to improve his rugby, his technique and his fitness. That’s why his story was so special and his career has been so special. Even the last time we played together, he was still trying to get better and to improve his rugby. By doing that, he was able to inspire the others, to push the players around him to get better. It was not always easy to stand next to him because he was hard on himself and sometimes others because his only goal was to make Italy better.

“He changed during his career. When I first started playing with the national team, Marco Bortolami was the captain and Sergio was still a young player. When the captaincy went from Bortolami to Parisse when Nick Mallett was the coach, he changed a bit. But he was a quiet guy, a funny guy in the changing room but not like Castro (Martin Castrogiovanni), not the joker. He was a quiet guy whose focus was to be as professional as possible; his focus was on rugby and how he could get better. He’s a really good guy. In the last few years of our career, our relationship got stronger and stronger. We have a really strong relationship on the pitch and off the pitch. He’s a friend because if you need him, he’ll be there for you and will do everything possible to help you or support you.”

Conor O’Shea – Parisse’s coach for Italy in his final years with the national team

“You go in with a perception of what someone is going to be like, especially when you’re as big a character as he is and I was just blown away. Blown away by his humility first and foremost, his work ethic which is as you would probably expect for someone who has played that many times.

“The easiest thing for someone like Sergio to have done over the years was to have gone cash in his chips, retire, walked away a legend of the game, played for his club, earnt his money. But he kept on coming back for more to make Italy better – he always believed in better days and was always playing for the future.

“He’s just an all-round really good person and that’s the most important thing I found with him in all my time, you can talk about the legend, the skill, the talent, the ability, whatever but he’s just a good person.

“What I said to people like Jake Polledri when he came into the squad was to bleed him [Parisse] dry [in terms of information]. Look at how he prepares himself, learn as much as you can do off him.

“Italy have improved a lot but it’s a journey and it’s not easy when you’re on that – when you lose, to come back and still have the same energy, the same fight, the same belief and that’s what you can learn a lot from him because would he, in his pomp, be in any world XV? Yes. I mean unequivocally just one of the greatest rugby players of all time. But it’s the resilience to keep on wanting and keep on coming back for more and I think a lot of people will learn from him.

“We persuaded him to keep on going and to play for the future of the game in Italy and I think hopefully he can see that the place is beginning to move in a better direction again.”

Asked if there was one moment that typified Parisse, O’Shea said: “It’s a weird one and maybe it’s a personal one and I always think about it – one because I didn’t work with him when he did it and secondly it was a comment he passed to me when I said to him.

“Years ago, he went for a drop goal against France at the Stade de France at the very end of a game to win the match (in the 2016 Six Nations). I wasn’t with him it was Jacques [Brunel]’s last year and he [Parisse] got an awful going over in the press for going for it and taking on that responsibility. But he took on the responsibility when no one else would, missed it and I passed a snide little remark to him in one training session about that drop goal and said don’t do a drop kick, but then as I looked at him I realised he actually practises.

“So all he did was go for something that he practises. He practises every skill in the book and that’s why he’s got every skill in the book and he looked at me and he said ‘I will get that drop goal one day’. But it typified him because it was something I remember even agreeing with the press at the time, how stupid was he taking that on? He should have left it to somebody else but a) he takes responsibility and b) he bloody well practises the thing.”