All rugby roads lead to Rome as Zebre battle extinction

Financial problems of Parma club suggest restructuring of Italian game is inevitable

Attilio Bertolucci, the late Italian poet, wrote of his native Parma: "As a capital city, it had to have a river. As a little capital, it received a stream, which is often dry."

On Tuesday, figureheads from this little city, midway between Milan and Bologna, called a press conference. Zebre president Stefano Pagliarini was joined by local politicians whose names are irrelevant because if they carried any actual influence this public forum would be unnecessary.

Zebre need €1 million to stay afloat until season’s end.

“We can win the [Pro 12] title, but the territory has to support us,” was Pagliarini’s flagrant soundbite, seemingly mimicking Connacht’s clarion call of bygone years when the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) attempted to disband the western province.


But Connacht never consistently leaked between 50 and 80 points in a season. There were, always, signs of life in Galway.

Zebre’s media dance followed Leinster’s 10-try rout in Dublin, the 82 points plundered by Wasps in October, the 52-7 victory Connacht took from Parma, and so on.

"Win or Bankruptcy" was the local Parma Gazzetta headline, followed by Pagliarini's plea for a local cash injection to save the club from going under in February: "If we have no help from the territory, we will not have a chance to wrap up our project and we risk undoing the work done."

The work he speaks of remains unseen. Zebre, since its inception as a professional entity in the 2012/13 season, have lost all 16 of their Heineken or Champions Cup games, prompting strong indications that their ignominious record will see this manufactured franchise dissolved, with a replacement formed in Rome for, at the latest, the 2018/19 season.

Calvisano – "a historical stronghold of Italian rugby," according to the Parma Gazzetta – is the alternative destination, having previously partnered Treviso as the other professional Italian team for seven of eight seasons until 2009.

Calvisano’s proud European record: played 42, won two, lost 40.

The disorganised Italian joke has never caught on, with just 24 Heineken or Champions Cup victories in 232 matches dating back to 1995.


Vincent Galliard, the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) director general, was unavailable for comment this week despite Zebre's financial crisis breaching the national news cycle in Italy. La Gazzetta Dello Sport reported the club's "appeal to institutions and local economic forces" and "talk of €1 million to cover the deficit to reach the end of the season, but obviously this is not enough to guarantee a future for the club".

So it’s possible that a newly formed Rome or Calvisano (based in northern Italian) franchise will be parachuted into the Pro12 next season.

"We have a future goal to win the Guinness Pro12 and we can do it despite current difficulties," Pagliarini said. "That is why we place great emphasis on supporting local economic realities by the end of February, or difficulties might arise. Without adequate economic support, the Italian Rugby Federation could consider reassigning [the club] and not allowing us to continue to participate in these important European tournaments."

Sounds grim.

Recently retired Leinster flanker Kevin McLaughlin was on Off the Ball's afternoon panel last Saturday when Italy's Pro12 record this season – a combined disaster of three wins from 24 matches (including Treviso beating Zebre in round 11) – rose to the surface.

“Italian teams are a problem,” said McLaughlin. “But I am hopeful and a lot of people are hopeful that Conor O’Shea is in Italy now. He understands the value of strong provincial teams.”

Over then to the former Irish fullback whose Roman features led to teammates christening him Caesar. “There are some political issues in Italy that [O’Shea] has to work through . . .”

Untangling Italian politics requires a history lesson, journeying back to the 14th-century courts of Borgia and de' Medici, from whence Niccolò Machiavelli devoured enough unscrupulous behaviour to pen The Prince.

“I think there needs to be change in the way the Italian teams are set up,” McLaughlin added. “There is no doubt about that. A move to Rome, I think, would be brilliant, in a proper stadium where there’s a lot of expats that would stir up interest.”

Because no Irish, Scottish or Welsh player gets enthused by the Parma fixture?

“No, it’s a sleepy town in front of about 600 people,” McLaughlin said. “Genuinely, it feels like going to an AIL [All-Ireland League] Second Division game. No excitement walking in there, no buzz. There are no games like that in the Top 14 or Premiership any more. Every side is fighting for their lives.”


Those at rugby’s coal face adopt a more disingenuous stance.

Switch to Connacht's media gathering sans Pat Lam, a week after he aimed a shot at the IRFU over its refusal to let Mitch Lam play for free. Assistant coach Jimmy Duffy has been asked to put a shape around Saturday's lunchtime visit from a Zebre side that have coughed up 224 points in four European outings.

“Zebre have a lot of quality players,” Duffy claimed. “They have a very, very good attacking 10 [unnamed – answer on a tweet], who challenge you in all areas of the field. Good forwards up front, good lineout, good scrum and good attacking wings.”

This was met by silence.

"The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him," wrote Machiavelli in The Prince. Conor O'Shea's first appointment as Italy coach was Steve Aboud. Since the Irish academy system was formed in 1993, schoolboys and youths receiving a letter on IRFU-headed paper with Aboud's signature down at the bottom knew they were on the professional pathway.

Aboud – currently based in Parma – is charged with overseeing 32 “centres of formation”, which prime 16-year-olds to enter the nine regional academies. O’Shea splits his time between both wayward professional squads. In November, Italy got wiped 68-10 by a rampaging post-Chicago All Blacks, then broke new ground with victory over the Springboks, only to be beaten by Tonga a week later.

“They desperately want to succeed and they want to succeed very quickly,” said Aboud in a recent interview. “For me, this is very attractive, but every project where you work with people it does take time to change minds, think in a different way. Players will need time to adapt.”

Time is a flat circle the Pro12 cannot afford to inhabit. Both Italian sides are bound to the league until 2020, but a break clause exists come 2018, just as the next broadcasting deal begins.

The Pro12 negotiating position is severely weakened by its Italian limbs. There seems to be only one option, as our sly Italian scribe wrote: the promise given was a necessity of the past, the word broken is a necessity of the present.

A single franchise in the Eternal City with a new European superclub, based in an untapped major city, seems more viable than a North American franchise, an idea that has lost momentum in recent months with the collapse of the professional US league.

The current Pro12 television deal, like the convoluted Champions Cup agreement, ends after the 2017/18 season. Two new teams, Rome and AN Other, would automatically alter the conversation with Sky and, potentially, BT Sport.

A Roma franchise could have an impact similar to that of the Jaguares, initially playing in South Africa but now a Super Rugby outfit, on Argentinian rugby.

Maybe then Caesar can set them free.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent