Italian rugby has continued to break through into the mainstream consciousness of Italian sports fans this year and the steps it has made were confirmed on Saturday November 17 when over 74,000 packed into the Stadio Olimpico in Rome for the Azzurri's match against the world champion New Zealand All Blacks.
It marked the third time this year that Jacques Brunel's side has played at the Olimpico and the second time, after the match with Scotland in the Six Nations, that the fans filled it. It would have been filled three times, but prior to their match with England in February, Rome suffered its first snowfall in 25 years to leave many stranded on the roads in and around the city. In the end, a respectable 55,000 made it to the match. In all this year over 200,000 people have attended matches at the Stadium.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse was under no illusions as to what playing at Italy's premier stadium, usually home to Serie A teams AS Roma and SS Lazio, meant to the players and the sport.
"For us it is special because the Olympic Stadium is one of the best stadiums in Italy and it is in Rome, the capital city of Italy and for us it is such an honour," he said. "Normally it is only Roma and Lazio and you know how soccer is. So when rugby has a chance to play here it gives us the chance to show more Italians about rugby and to have over 70,000 Italians watching Italy, especially against a team such as the All Blacks, it is a great opportunity for us."
The move to the Olimpico nearly didn't happen. For the previous 12 seasons Italy had played in the more homely surrounds of the Stadio Flaminio over the other side of the River Tiber in Rome. They started their stay there with a 34-20 win over then defending champions Scotland in 2000 and marked their farewell with a 22-21 victory over Six Nations title holders France in 2011. However, while the capacity had risen from 25,000 to 30,000 and up to 35,000 during those dozen years, the fact that the Flaminio needed major restructuring and upgrades meant that they would need to move away for some time before they could match demand.
At the end of the 2010/11 season there was no guarantee that Italy would continue to play in Rome and there was talk that they might take their matches to Florence's 40,000 Stadio Artemio Franchi. In the end though the Italian Rugby Federation and Rome's council decided to give the Olimpico a chance and it is a move that has played dividends.
"It was an outstanding crowd today, it really looked like the Italians were enjoying their rugby and had a good knowledge of the game," New Zealand captain Kieran Read said after the match, which the All Blacks won 42-10. "It is always awesome playing in front of such a great crowd. It is something that can lift you as a player."
Italy will now play their three Six Nations matches at the Olimpico in 2013, against France, Wales and Ireland on the St Patrick's Day weekend. Tickets are already doing a brisk trade and if they continue that way there is no reason why Italy can't top the 200,000 mark again in 2013.