THE world’s most talented loser has a decorative CV. A five-time nominee for the Six Nations player of the tournament award, and twice included on the IRB’s player of the year shortlist, Sergio Parisse captained Stade Francais to this year’s Top 14 title.
So there is nothing left for him to prove even if there is so much for him still to win – a match against England for a start, or New Zealand, South Africa or Australia. Thirty-two test appearances against those four countries have resulted in 32 defeats.
If that record is harrowing then so is the fact that since he made his debut as an 18-year-old against the All-Blacks in 2002, Parisse has played 112 tests for Italy and lost 80 times. "You have to be realistic,” he said. “But that does not mean you have to be defeatist. You must keep morale high and have the guys believing in each other.”
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All that is easier said than done, though, especially with a team who have been missing an expert at the controls since Diego Dominquez’s retirement. That, by the way, was back in 2003, the year Parisse made his Six Nations debut.
“People were telling me I was mad to put him in the team at such a young age,” said John Kirwan, Italy’s former coach, “but I met with his father before we picked him. That's one of the things that struck me about Sergio, his desire to be the best even then.
He had a real project in his mind. Back then, too, you could see the leadership qualities in him. He wasn't loud but he had presence." Since then he has, whenever fit, always been present on Italy’s good days, maturing into their captain, their talisman, record-caps holder, best ever player.
And there is something charmingly old-fashioned about him too, not just in the manner he plays but also the way he conducts himself. "He never, never gives in to fear,” said Kirwan in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “He was throwing those behind–the–back passes even as a kid. Skill allied to confidence, it's a pretty potent combination.
"You've got to be a special type to captain Italy because you are invariably dealing with the crisis of defeat. You have to help keep morale high and team spirit intact. Sergio, like many before him, does all that." It hasn’t always been easy, though.
An eight-week ban in 2009 for gouging bruised his reputation and came at a time when Italy needed him more than ever. For four straight years they finished the Six Nations with the wooden spoon and their performance, or lack thereof, in the 2011 World Cup left them in danger of falling into the abyss.
And yet they, and Parisse, keep coming back. They measure their triumphs by the little steps they make; that first win over France in 2012, the first in 15 years over Ireland, the avoidance of bottom place in three of the last four Six Nations seasons.
“We have a pride representing our country,” said Parisse. “Yes, there have been bad days. Yes, there have been heavy defeats. But there have also been good days. We have beaten France, beaten Ireland, beaten Scotland. We go into every game knowing it will be tough. But we feel we can win.”
Team-mates feel it too. “When Sergio plays, when he is there, we feel good about ourselves,” said Andrea Masi. Others are seduced by the potent combination of his excellent technique and imposing physical attributes. “He’s a special player,” said Jamie Heaslip, his direct opponent.
“You never get an easy day against him. Yet you always look forward to playing him because you are being tested against the best. He is one of the hardest men I have played against but also one of the best.” England lock Tom Palmer agrees:
“It isn’t just that Sergio is a good athlete,” he said, “but he combines that with being very skilful. He has a high work-rate, everything you need to be a top player. It seems as though he raises his game every time he plays for Italy. He often plays well for Stade, but not quite as consistently well as he does for Italy. He’s the captain, it’s a big responsibility for him and he rises to the challenge. He delivers every time.”
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His upbringing had something to do with that. An Italian in a foreign land, he was the son of a former rugby player who had won an Italian championship in 1967, before work with the Italian national airline, Alitalia, brought him to Argentina. By the time the teenage Parisse moved ‘home’, he was practically picked up from the airport by Treviso, who he played with until Stade Francais signed him in 2005.
“When I arrived in the Italian team I knew we weren’t in a position to be contenders in the Six Nations,” he said. “However, I’m sure one day we will rise. When that happens, when we can win any game we play in the Six Nations or in the World Cup, all the hard work will be worth it. There are a lot of good young players coming through – we can surprise people and be successful.”
Success is relative, though. For Italy, reaching the quarter-finals would represent a major breakthrough and if this unlikely scenario is to unfold, they’ll need their captain to be at his imperious best. “Well the thing is that Sergio plays every game for Italy as if it is the last match of his life,” said Nick Mallett, the former Italian coach who made him captain in 2008. “His genius is that he drags players up to his level.
“He can play against the All Blacks or South Africa and believe he is the best player on the park. No arrogance, just belief. He puts his body on the line for his team mates. They follow him always, totally. He is indomitable.”
But he is just one man. It's the other fourteen that are the problem.