With the ever-improving Italian side readying themselves to take up their role as dark horses for the 2019 Guinness Six Nations Championship, there are few better men to look out for as an on-pitch leader than Sergio Parisse.
The 35-year-old is widely regarded as one of the greatest No.8s of the modern era, and has long been the heartbeat of the Azzuri.
With an exciting young generation of Italian talent emerging, along with a selection of ever-improving senior figures, Italy have been tipped by many for their strongest showing at Rugby’s Greatest Championship this year, and none will be more desperate to live up to the billing than Parisse.
Entering his 18th year of international rugby, Parisse has exceeded the status of mainstay to become a mythical figure in the Italian game and will be raring to lead out his side once more as Italy prepare for their Guinness Six Nations opener at Murrayfield on 2 February.
A Bonaerenses beginning
The archetype of Italian rugby, it is nigh-on impossible to imagine Parisse wearing the shirt of any other nation, but it could have all been so different.
Parisse was one of the 25 million Italian Argentines as a child, born in the city of La Plata to Italian parents, he was always destined to play rugby.
His father, a winner of the Italian club championship back in the 60s, had moved his family to the Rio de la Plata for work.
Sergio senior made sure to raise his son both a proud Italian and a keen rugby player, with his progeny playing his formative years for the La Plata club.
At 18 he returned to his fatherland to play for Benetton and soon after the national team, when he was called up by then Azzurri coach John Kirwan for a sink-or-swim appearance in the toughest possible circumstances: an away trip to New Zealand.
Parisse never looked back, taking up residency at the back of the pack for both club and country, kicking off what would become a storied legacy – but he wasn’t to know that back then.
From prospect to leader
Parisse plunged into life in Europe with aplomb, scoring his first try for the Azzurri in his side’s win over Canada at the 2003 Rugby World Cup and spending a decorated four years in Treviso with Benetton, lifting two National Championships of Excellence during his stint.
The No.8 swapped the distinctive green of Benetton for another famous set of club colours – Stade Francais pink – in 2005, the club for whom he still plies his domestic trade.
But it is in the blue of Italy that he soon became best known, rewarded for his performances with the captain’s armband before the 2008 Six Nations by head coach Nick Mallett.
The South African was unequivocal when asked for his reasoning; as some questioned the decision to overlook Mauro Bergamasco for the role, Mallett was resolute.
“Sergio Parisse is an athlete of personality, who is respected by team-mates, referees and opponents. These features are fundamental to carrying out the role of national team captain. We are looking to the future and we are ready to start a new chapter in the history of Italian rugby,” he said at the time.
It heralded a new age for Italian rugby, with few predicting Parisse’s tenure to last for over a decade and counting.
His domineering style helped pave the way for famous wins over Ireland, South Africa and a pair of Six Nations victories over France, with the Italians proving an increasingly tough nut to crack in the championship.
The boy born in Argentina was Italy’s talisman – their most recognisable face – and his appeal began to spread far beyond the borders of his own nation; Parisse was a superstar.
Record-breaker, history maker
Parisse’s personal honours list is resplendent, and ever-growing.
When he was nominated for the IRB International Player of the Year in 2008 he became the first Italian to make the shortlist, and in 2013 he was the second.
Unsurprisingly, due to both his quality and longevity, he is Italy’s all-time leading appearance-maker, with 134 caps to his name at time of writing.
That’s enough to put him joint-fourth alongside Gethin Jenkins on the list of worldwide test leaders, with Richie McCaw in sight at the summit just 14 ahead.
But with the embarrassment of riches filling out his own personal trophy cabinet, Parisse would love nothing more than to add international honours to his collection.
With Italy in form and gearing up for the 2019 Guinness Six Nations and Parisse once more leading the line, anything is possible.