Expert Witness: Sergio Parisse on his retirement call, Italy’s new DNA and the Six Nations
On Monday, a brief press release announced that Italy’s greatest and the most capped Six Nations player of all time, Sergio Parisse, would retire at the end of the season. Short, to the point and without hyperbole.
For many within the rugby media, Parisse has been a constant of our careers – providing rugby watchers over an astonishing 19 years at the pinnacle of the sport with passion, brilliance, frustration and admiration in equal measure.
Rugby won’t be the same without him, nor will the many pub and social media arguments trying to assess just how special a performer the big Azzurri has been.
Whichever way you view his talents, it’s undeniable that Parisse is and was the ultimate entertainer and athlete, a prancing horse of a Ferrari amongst the muscle cars of Test forwards. Sometimes loose, always imaginative, driven by emotion, and forever listening to the right side of his brain, he was capable of delivering some of the most wonderful moments you’ll ever see on a rugby pitch.
He developed the role description of a number eight forward to new levels and, without question, left that shirt in a completely different and better place to where he found it some 20 years ago.
Body speaking to me
However, Parisse admits that the demands of the modern game have finally caught up with him – that at 39, the tank is close to drained but that his own professionalism and standards mean that the rest of this season is an immense focus for him.
“My body was reminding my soul every day,” Parisse chuckled.
“It seems like it’s been like this for the last three or four years. What was normal to deal with physically in a young career becomes so much harder as you get towards the end, and it’s just about trying to deal with that process, understanding that it’s perhaps now time.
“So many seasons, and eventually, it catches up with you. Basically, it becomes more and more difficult to seek out the standards you once had, standards that mean a lot to you personally.
“Monday morning becomes Tuesday morning in terms of recovery time, however fresh you try and keep your body – and of course, there’s the workload – there’s almost too many games now when you factor in the intensity of Top 14, Test matches, Europe and so on.
“When I started playing rugby in 2002, I was 18, and it was different a game – the physicality has increased hugely over that period of 20 years and especially over the last seven or eight. It was a contact sport, but now it’s a collision sport and seems to get faster and more powerful every year.
The Greatest Six Nations XV? Well I think so!
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“I am still playing now because I’ve been very lucky with injuries, and I’ve done my best to take care of my head mentally, something many overlook, and of my body physically. I don’t think you’ll see players in the 37/39 years old bracket like Alun Wyn Jones or me in the future because young guys are coming into the game at 18 and 19 from Academies into a much more sustained physical environment as the game further evolves.
“I really fear we won’t see long careers just because rugby has changed and the demands are getting harder and harder,” Parisse explained.
“Rugby is always going to be a case of risk versus reward,” he noted.
“If you don’t accept that when you choose to play rugby, you won’t succeed. If you’re not prepared to put your body in danger, then you’re probably playing the wrong sport. But it’s the same for all sports; if you play golf, motorsport or whatever, you will have another type of risk, and you must accept that is a choice you are making.
“However, player welfare is key, and we must try to reduce the risks as best as we can without ever losing the essence of the contact nature of the sport.
“It’s great that the players and authorities nowadays are really looking to take care of the head and remove those crucial headshot and brain injury moments, but it is also key to have balance to maintain the differentiation of the sport. You cannot overthink this change – you’re in danger of losing the things that make the sport unique but manage them by all means – but make the changes simple and effective,” noted Parisse.
Six Nations excitement
With the start of the 2023 Six Nations a matter of 24 hours away, Parisse admits he’s excited about the improvement and style of his beloved Italy in recent times and is relishing the battles ahead, but with one eye having a particular focus on how Ireland and France perform.
“The Six Nations is such a special tournament – the colours, the stadiums, the fans and the unique atmospheres,” he smiled.
“Those memories always stay with you and are the things that are almost impossible to replace in your life, but as I told the French newspapers on Monday, I am playing and am available should Kieran Crowley need me,” Parisse quipped.
“I am always available for my country, now and even to the Rugby World Cup if fit and in form. And yes, a sixth Rugby World Cup would honestly be a dream, but it’s very much an outside hope.
“However, joking aside, it’s important that this version of Italy grows their own way and the young players create their own direction. For most of my career, we always offered a good set-piece and powerful physical challenge, but this new team are playing some great rugby with a lot of width and pace, which is fantastic to see.
“It’s their game, and they are creating both their own DNA and their own memories. It’s absolutely key that Kieran picks the best Italian team he can, and currently, I’m not one of those players, which is fine.
“The current group had some high points last year, in both the Six Nations and November. They’re growing into their roles and improving every time – this year, I believe they’ve one big result in them, and I am confident that’ll happen at some point.
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“The rest of the Six Nations will be intriguing. Ireland versus France is obviously the match of the year, and I think it’s the only time that number one has met number two in the world ranking in the history of the tournament?
“France have a few injuries, but Ireland have been the gun side in recent times and I expect them, perhaps, to have enough this time.
“I’m also looking forward to seeing England. Eddie Jones was great for them for a long period, but with Steve Borthwick, I feel they have a man that can capture the hearts and minds.
“I heard Steve speak recently, and I was very impressed with his words about commitment to the shirt and to your teammates. He sees the big things and keeps stuff simple, which can be very effective in rejuvenating a side.
“He has exactly the right experience to make a success of this, and a standout match for me personally will be in the second round when Italy visit Twickenham. Maybe that will be Italy’s big performance?!”
“My focus now – well, the key thing is just to try to manage where the energy is and sign off with something special with Toulon. I am trying to work out what I will miss most. I am not sure yet, but I suppose that the adrenaline of the build-up to the game, that preparation together with your teammates and then that satisfaction after the game, when you almost have that instant measurability of your own performance.
“And for sure, I’ll miss the pride of pulling on the blue jersey of Italy – it’s been almost a constant of my adult life, and I have so many emotions invested in that shirt.
“I have started my coaching qualifications (I actually finished them yesterday!), and at this moment, I’d like to stay within the sport in that sort of capacity.
“I’ve been here in Toulon for three years, and I’m working with the U16s here, and I’d like to continue that. I hope as I develop my coaching skills that, I will get the same rush and satisfaction in developing others that I found within playing the game myself.
“As I said earlier, that instant measurability is something I enjoy as a player, and hopefully, I can get that in time, developing others and assisting them to succeed. It’ll be a different approach, and I know, at times, I’ll be itching to be ‘out there’, but so far, after just attaining my qualification, I’ve enjoyed it. I’ll let you know in a year or so!” joked Parisse.
“For now, I want to enjoy the last moments with Toulon and maybe, just maybe, the phone ring from Italy for that last dance.
“Now, that would be a great finish!”
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