On October 11, 2003, the attention of the rugby world was fixed on New Zealand’s first step in their bid to win the Rugby World Cup, a 70-7 victory over Italy in Melbourne.
Just over an hour into a routine win for the All Blacks, a 20-year-old Italian called Sergio Parisse stepped off the bench to replace flanker Mauro Bergamasco for his World Cup debut.
Although the substitution did little to influence the game, it started a remarkable international career during which Parisse has become his country’s most-capped player.
Fourteen years on, the number eight is set to play in a fifth World Cup in Japan, a landmark only two players have previously reached — Samoa’s Brian Lima and Bergamasco, the man he replaced on his debut.
“When you’re 20 years old your dream is to go to the World Cup, so you want to kill everyone in every single training session,” Parisse told Reuters.
The 35-year-old has achieved a lot since first realising that dream. He has earned 140 caps – more than any except Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll (141) and New Zealand’s Richie McCaw (149).
In that time the 6ft 4in back-row forward’s unique blend of power and technique has made him an Italian talisman and he became the first player from his country to be nominated for IRB Player of the Year in 2008 before earning a second nomination in 2013.
Sergio Parisse of Italy in action during the Six Nations rugby match between Italy and Wales at Olimpico Stadium in Rome, Italy, 09 February 2019. Photo: EPA/Alessandro Di Meo
Parisse’s stature and role as captain ensured his ticket to Japan was never in doubt, although he insists the security of a squad place hasn’t tempted him to ease off a bit ahead of his final appearance on rugby’s biggest stage.
“My desire is stronger than before,” he said.
“There’s no way for me to be lazy or relaxed in training just because I know I’m the captain and I’m going to be there in Japan.
“It’s my responsibility to be the first at training, to be aggressive. I say to the team every time we train that we’re friends, we play together, but when we’re training we’re not friends and we don’t give gifts to anyone.
“There’s no way that there is less commitment in training just because I’m 35 years old and pretty sure to go to the World Cup.”
Parisse describes himself as “very passionate and emotional”. He was reduced to tears in the news conference that followed Italy’s loss to France on the final day of the 2019 Six Nations, which extended their losing run in the competition to a record 22 games.
There’s no escaping the fact this will be the last time he graces a World Cup. But Parisse is determined not to allow the thought of his final game at the tournament – and possibly his last for Italy – to distract him.
“I just want to enjoy it, because I know these are my last few games in an Italian jersey,” he said.
“I’m trying to enjoy every time I pull it on and go out to represent my country,” he said. “We’re going to see after the World Cup if I’m going to stop my (international) career or continue.
“If I feel I can still give something to the Italian jersey I would consider another Six Nations, but if I think after the World Cup that I should stop I’m going to be honest and that’s the best call,” he added.
“In my head I want to play for Italy for another 10 or 15 years but it’s impossible, so sometimes you have to think about making the right decision.”
Sergio Parisse with his son after the Six Nations rugby match between Italy and France at the Olimpico stadium in Rome, Italy, 16 March 2019. Photo: EPA/Etorre Ferrari
Italy face an enormous challenge to reach the knockout stages for the first time after being drawn in a group with two of the tournament favourites, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as Namibia and Canada.
But Parisse believes the attitude and preparation of Conor O’Shea’s squad have put them in the best possible position to pull off a momentous upset.
“I’ve never been in a World Cup squad with as much enthusiasm as this one before,” he said.
“In 2015 we had players with a lot of talent and skill like Martin Castrogiovanni, Andrea Masi, Mauro Bergamasco, players with experience of another level, and in 2011 it was the same.
“But this team has a really good work ethic and a lot of talent. I’m pretty sure this team will have a lot of success.
“For everyone it seems quite impossible for Italy to get out of the pool because New Zealand and South Africa are favourites, and that’s normal.
“But we’re working for a dream, something big and historic for Italian rugby.”