Our latest inductee into The Cult is an Italian rugby player who, more often than not, has to settle for being valiant in defeat. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Dying Gaul
On the Capitoline Hill, the citadel of the earliest Romans, there now stands a cobbled square which is hemmed in on three sides. One of the grand, palatial buildings that borders the courtyard is a museum, within the gilded halls of which lies a statue on a marble plinth. The statue depicts a fatally wounded man, propping himself up on one arm in an effort to rise or, perhaps more accurately, not to fall. He is known as The Dying Gaul, and is a powerful, poignant emblem of Ancient Rome.
While the statue naturally means different things to different peoples, its significance to the Romans was twofold. The Gauls were one of their traditional enemies so, in one sense, it is a symbol of their military success and the concession of the vanquished. That said, there is an undeniable heroism to The Dying Gaul, and a sense of enduring tragedy in his futile attempts to resist defeat. His dignity, his grace, his nobility in the face of his conquerors are all crucial to the statue's significance. Those attributes are independently moving, and yet, on account of his obvious worth as an opponent, they also elevate the people who have defeated him to greater glory and a higher martial plane.
In modern-day Rome, most often found on the field of the Stadio Olimpico, there is a figure cast in the same mould. Now, it is not a Gaul who represents the eternal fight against defeat, but a hulking, 6"5 Italian, and one who has tasted some of his most painful losses only a few miles away from the Musei Capitolini. The figure in question, with its head smooth as polished stone, belongs to Sergio Parisse, the chiselled number eight and sometime flanker who captains the Italian national side. He is a true warrior, an accomplished fighter, and one of rugby union's unrequited men.
While there have been times when Italian rugby has promised to rise triumphant, the sixth nation – which joined the old Five Nations tournament at the turn of the millennium – has suffered more than its fair share of slumps in recent years. Italy have finished no higher than fourth in the last five editions of the Six Nations, receiving the dreaded wooden spoon on two occasions and several times being battered by 50 points or more. The reality is that they are usually guaranteed at least one absolute thrashing per tournament; last year, eventual champions England put 40 points past them, while Ireland managed 58 and Wales an embarrassing 67. In terms of their general approach to the game, there has been some improvement since the dark days of the early noughties, where they often struggled to enact a cogent plan on the pitch. That said, we are yet to see the dawning of the golden age of Italian rugby, or anything even vaguely resembling the like.
It is in this context that, despite the numerous setbacks of the team as a whole, Parisse has become one of the most admired players in the sport. With his gargantuan strength, tireless running and carrying, and his general demeanour of square-jawed determination, Parisse is harder than his marble counterpart up on the Capitoline, though he has the considerable sporting advantage of distinct mobility. So often, when his teammates have been in disarray around him, he has rallied them to his standard with a crunching tackle, swift interception or brutal ball-winning counter ruck. So often when Italy have been on the verge of a rout, he has grabbed his fleeing comrades by the shoulders and forced them back towards the fray. He is hotheaded and impetuous at times, and has been known to make questionable decisions as well as to fall out quite spectacularly with referees. Italian supporters love him for all that, however, and appreciate his indomitable courage even in the face of insurmountable odds.
Parisse's interventions may not always have turned the tide of battle, but they have played a critical role in preserving Italian pride. Rugby is never going to be the national game in a nation so gripped by the love of calcio, but to meet its full potential as a sport there must at least be people whom Italian fans can lionise; heroes of the game who they can support and admire. Parisse is just that sort of hero, a man who towers over most of his teammates and stands tall even when the team are being overwhelmed. He is an island of resistance in an ebbing blue tide, and for that he has become an icon in his homeland. Whatever the scoreline, he refuses to go down without a good fight.
While doggedness is one of his dominant characteristics, Parisse brings another crucial element to the Italian game in the form of genuine entertainment and flair. When he's on song, he plays the number eight role to perfection, especially in his ability to link the often isolated Italian back line with their traditionally more robust forwards. He can break at pace, he's a master of the drop kick, while he passes and offloads with pace and panache. He is always assured, always bullish, and never afraid to attempt the ambitious, which is one of the reasons he has popped up with so many memorable tries. All of that marks him out from many of his more mundane compatriots. He is not satisfied to be competent, but rather attempts to be inspired.
Italian rugby cannot survive on saving face alone and, as such, the dash and machismo that Parisse brings are equally crucial to the health of the sport. He is nothing short of indispensable, a captain who leads the field in every way. Unfortunately for Parisse, the players around him have never quite been at the same level, gutsy and committed as some of them may be. That leaves him knowing that, no matter how hard he battles, no matter how valiantly he fights, he is rarely going to emerge victorious. Come the end of most matches, he is tinged with an air of tragedy, his gargantuan efforts frustrated once more.
The poignant truth of it is that Sergio Parisse is highly unlikely to ever win the Six Nations, let alone taste the exaltant glory of a Grand Slam. Now 33 years of age, the best he can hope for as an Italy player is a respectable tournament, a good result here and there, and the odd gallant performance to please the fans. That said, he has done immeasurable good for Italian rugby, and given his country a player of whom any nation could be proud. At the final whistle, with the battle over, he is so often left propping himself up on the turf. There is rarely an occasion when his vanquishers do not pause to admire him, however, humbled as they are by the calibre of the foe.
Entry Point: Perpetual Sacrifice
He may have poured out his blood, sweat and tears for Italy over the past decade and a half, but Parisse wasn't actually born in the motherland. The son of Italian immigrants living in Argentina, he grew up in La Plata, in the province of Buenos Aires. His father, also named Sergio, had played as a winger for Italian club L'Aquila, which might explain some of his son's pace. The elder Sergio won the Italian Club Championships with L'Aquila in 1967, before relocating his family to Argentina for the sake of his work.
Despite having a close affinity with his adopted home and starting his junior career there with La Plata Rugby Club, Parisse was always Italian first and foremost. He has since been erroneously identified as an Argentinean import by some in the media – the national team have been known to field players with far more tenuous links to Italy – but his allegiances have never truly been in doubt. The occasional accusation of otherness must have stung, however, and perhaps helped Parisse to maintain his determination on the pitch. Unlike those of his teammates who were born on Italian soil, he has been under pressure from the pettiest of purists to sacrifice himself that little bit more.
Self-sacrifice is a virtue which Parisse has in abundance, as he has shown ever since he debuted for the Azzurri back in 2002. In his first game, New Zealand thumped 64 points past the Italians, a result which must have sobered him up from the euphoria of his maiden senior start. Slumped in the dressing room after that match, a young, rather more hirsute Parisse must have looked to the future, and held out hope that things would get better for Italy. In some ways, they have, and in others, not so much.
The Moment: Italy vs. France, Six Nations 2013
While Parisse has certainly experienced defeat more often than triumph, there is one great victory that stands out in his career. That was the Six Nations win over France in 2013, in which he and his Italy teammates nabbed one of the greatest results in the history of the national team. Despite coming into the game at something of a low ebb, France were still favourites, having made it to the final of the Rugby World Cup a mere two years previous. That didn't stop them from slipping up in their first match of the tournament, and leaving the Stadio Olimpico in raptures and tears.
Having belted out Fratelli d'Italia in spine-tingling fashion, Parisse straightaway set about mustering his troops. Practically his first act in the match was to dive across the try line, having finished off a lightning-fast break from well within the Italian half. France were left reeling, but soon came back at Italy, using their superior backs to gradually turn the tide in their favour. This time, though, Parisse was not going to be on the losing side. Fellow warrior Martin Castrogiovanni powered over the line after tenacious collective forward play early in the second half, handing the Italians the advantage once more.
While the home fans could have been forgiven for suppressing their optimism, having seen Italy blow similar leads so many times before, Parisse marshalled a last-ditch defence with incredible obstinacy and individual resolve. Ultimately, the French failed to breach said defence, and the final whistle was greeted with a deafening Roman roar. Having been gravely wounded in so many previous battles, Parisse was left to savour a meaningful victory, and one which he had played a huge part in orchestrating. It was one win amongst many reverses, but still, nobody could have deserved it more.
"If he was playing for the All Blacks, he'd be rated one of the best in the world."
– Eddie Jones, England coach, speaking about Parisse ahead of his side's last Six Nations win over Italy.