I always look forward to the Italy v England game as Rome is one of my favourite cities; the food, culture and style combined with a relaxed attitude to life all resonate well with me.
This year it proved to be a little more difficult than usual to arrange the flights as match day fell on Valentine’s Day and even as long ago as October Ryanair were charging £450 for a Saturday flight returning on Monday. So after hunting around I booked a flight leaving on Friday from London City Airport via Amsterdam, returning Monday via Milan, for considerably less than half the Ryanair price. I wasn’t the only one to think of it as roughly half the passengers on the flights were England supporters.
The disadvantage was that the journey time was a little over five hours and by the time we arrived in a rainy Rome and taken a 40 minute taxi ride to our hotel, it was already 9:30pm local time so after a beer or two we turned in for the night.
Saturday morning and afternoon were the only times we would have to ourselves so after breakfast we hopped onto a sightseeing bus as although I had seen most of the main sights before, the bus tour would take me to slightly further flung places such as the Circus Maximus and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, both of which were impressive although for different reasons.
Next stop was the Scholars Lounge, an Irish Bar off Piazza Venezia to meet up with an old friend Nick White and watch the Ireland v France game. Nick is a former ECRU referee who lived in Sudbury when i first met him and he tutored my refereeing course 20 years or so ago. We last saw each other when he was refereeing and playing in the Suffolk Vets 20/20 competition that I ran in the early 2000s but he decided to take early retirement as a teacher and sail around the world crewing on yachts.
I would see where he was from the occasional Facebook posts he put up but I was surprised when in 2011 he contacted me to say he had go a job in Kaduna High School in Northern Nigeria. I go every couple of years to Nigeria (where I was born) to offer what help I can with rugby development in the country and we hoped to be able to meet up but never quite managed to do so. Then on my last trip I contacted him to say I had put a day aside to fly to Kaduna from Lagos only for him to tell me that he had left to buy his own yacht and live the life of a sailor.
Then last year I went with my friend Brian to spend a week on his yacht which was moored at Cagliari on the southern coast of Sardinia. In response to my Facebook post I got a message from Nick saying that he was sailing off Northern Sicily and we made a preliminary plan to sail towards each other and meet somewhere to the west of the island. But time proved to be against us and once again we didn’t meet up despite being quite close.
So when he contacted me last week to say he would be in Rome for the Italy v England game we resolved that this time we would get together and we spent a happy couple of hours catching up while lamenting the poor standard of rugby being screened, although I only had time to watch the first half of the Ireland v France game.
All too soon it was time to go back to the hotel to change for the first official function of the weekend. We were to have dinner with the Italian committee at the Palazzo Colonna, a palace in the centre of Rome owned by the Colonna family since it was built in the fourteenth century. The entrance was pretty modest where we were met by a guide who would take us on a short tour. The history of the building was fascinating as were the beautiful sculptures, pictures and tapestries, but the final gallery was breathtaking. It is worth having a look at the Palace’s website to get an idea of the place.
Regional food was the theme of the weekend and all the food and wine came from the Naples area. I sat between to Italians, one from Rome and the other from Naples, who, in between the rugby talk, spent the evening trying to convince me that their region was the better of the two. Eventually it was time to leave and rejoin our partners who had stayed at the hotel for the evening.
Next day was game day and with the coach leaving at 11:30 we didn’t have much time to dawdle, so once again we left our partners behind and headed for the the Stadio Olimpico for a pre-match function but not before a few of us paid a visit to the Peroni Village for a couple of cold ones. The food and wine were once again excellent with a huge range of meats, fish and pasta available from a buffet. You cannot fault the Italians for being the most generous hosts.
It was with some relief that I got into the stadium bowl and some fresh air to find that I had a seat with the England subs bench just a few feet to my right. It was interesting to see how the conditioning coach kept them alert with regular warm ups and got each individual prepared before they went onto the field.
Now to the game. The first 50 minutes were a turgid affair as far as England was concerned. but one shouldn’t underestimate the Italians ability to disrupt their opposition. Sergio Parisse was magnificent popping up everywhere and you can’t help but think how much his country will miss him when he retires. However, England did put together some good phases in the final thirty minutes with Care’s grubber kick for Joseph to run on to and Jamie George’s deft offload to Farrell being for me the two highlights.
This performance may still be well short of what England needs to do before they are worldbeaters but they have won two games away from home playing opposition against whom they were predicted to struggle, scoring seven tries and conceding none and they can only improve under the new coaching team. They may not necessarily win the Six Nations this season but the building blocks are beginning to be put in place. On top of that, Hartley has got through a second game without a yellow card and as far as I could see he kept out of trouble. What are the odds on him continuing in that vein for England all season?
After the match there was a gap of about two hours before the players’ dinner, and although there was coffee, water and juice available, there was no beer despite Peroni being a major sponsor! Let me tell you that RFU President Jason Leonard was not happy although he suspected that it was a planned move to stop some of the people due at the function from overdoing it. I suggested we might go out to the Peroni Village but he told me that having tried that two years ago, he was mobbed from the moment he stepped outside and progress towards the public bars was impossible.
Our enforced spell of prohibition over we settled down for dinner. Usually, the captains will sit with their players but the Italians had Hartley and Parisse at the top table with Jason, Bill Beaumont and their Italian equivalents. Jason presented Paul Hill and Maro Itoje with their England caps while Dylan Hartley thanked ‘Bill and the Blazers’ for their support at the game. I though he was referring to some 60s rock group but in fact he meant the RFU Council and their Chairman Bill Beaumont.
I had the chance of a couple of words with Ben Youngs and asked him why he thought he was warded Man of the Match by the Italian broadcaster RAI. He said he was as mystified as anyone and had offered to give it to Jonathan Joseph, but he refused to take it. Once the formalities were over we headed back to our coach where we had a police escort back to our hotel, which was exciting but pointless as the streets were largely deserted.
While many of my my colleagues headed to the bar I retired to my room only too aware that I was leaving for London in the morning with a day of meetings at Twickenham and the rest of the week at work to look forward to.
We will do it all again in a fortnight when we entertain the Irish at home, although I have an extra international to look forward to next weekend when I travel to Brussels for Belgium vs Holland where I will be catching up with my Flemish friends.
Pictures from the weekend