The Official Online RBS 6 Nations Store is open. The store has everything you need to get behind your team during the RBS 6 Nations, plus the store is now fully stocked with a much wider range of rugby merchandise.
Their startling win over favourites France brought rather more than reaffirmation of the tournament’s enduring capacity for the unexpected.
It put them on the front page of Corriere dello Sport, no mean feat in a country where it takes something extraordinary to interrupt the national obsession with a different kind of football.
The lead story, inspired by a newly repatriated footballer from Manchester, was spelt out in large red letters: ‘Balotelli Sei Unico..’
Beneath that, they found room for the Sei Nazioni and a photograph of Martin Castrogiovanni, jubilant at scoring what turned out to be the winning try.
The headline captured the sense of occasion as witnessed by almost 70,000 who converted the Stadio Olimpico into a rugby Coliseum: ‘Italia da delirio che bella lezione alla Francia.’
The fact that France had smashed Australia 33-6 in Paris 12 weeks earlier made the Italian victory all the more startling, even if it was their second in successive home championship matches against opponents who very nearly won the World Cup in between their two ruinous Roman trips.
What made the latest one all the more stirring was that the beseiged Azzurri kept the barricades intact despite having been under-manned by a late yellow card.
At the heart of a win which ridiculed the form book and threw the championship wide open was a 31-year-old fly half whose club team, Zebre, has not won a game all season.
Luciano Orquera capped the Test match of his career with the break which unhinged France. When they hauled him down close to the line, Orquera ensured that Italy made the most of his enterprise, the sweetest of passes out of the tackle inviting Castrogiovanni to finish it off.
Tries from Leicester’s bulldozing tighthead are nothing new. He finished the 2008 championship as Italy’s leading scorer with three but none as devastating as the one which appeared to turn the table, as projected by many pundits, upside down.
Its conversion by the unflappable Orquera, and a subsequent Kristopher Burton drop goal, left a strangely subdued French team needing a try to escape with a draw, at worst.
Instead they left with exactly what they deserved and now Rome becomes a daunting prospect for Wales, next up in the Eternal City for Round Three later in the month.
A fifth straight defeat in Cardiff removed the defending champions from the Grand Slam equation as well as ridiculing a theory peddled in some quarters that Brian O’Driscoll might have been feeling his age.
In the course of engineering the pass which threw the Welsh defence so off balance that Simon Zebo could score unopposed, Ireland’s venerable centre passed everything except his sell-by date.
As if emboldened by O’Driscoll’s example, Zebo produced his own brand of magic, flicking a low-slung pass into his hands from the outside of his left ankle.
The trick, all done at high speed, paved the way for Cian Healy to claim the second of Ireland’s three tries.
Wales, 27 points down four minutes into the second-half, responded to the crisis with three tries of their own.
It all contributed to a thrilling advertisement for the Six Nations, not that Welsh fans will find any lasting consolation from the high entertainment factor. The entertainment, first and foremost, is in the winning.
England did that in some style against Scotland. While Ireland have now been beaten just twice at Cardiff in 15 visits over the last 30 years, the Scots’ long tale of Calcutta Cup woe at Twickenham grows a little longer with nothing but one draw to show for their last 15 visits over the same period.
The three matches combined to deliver another satisfying statistic, more tries (16) than penalty goals (13).
My Team of the weekend:
15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland) – had to be good to get the closest of nods over the ever-impressive Leigh Halfpenny.
14 Chris Ashton (England) – back with an early bid to reclaim the title of best finisher in the tournament.
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland) – still peerless after all these years, surely the Lions’ captain-in-waiting.
12 Billy Twelvetrees (England) – branched out into the international arena as if to the manor born.
11 Simon Zebo (Ireland) – one flash of magic so exquisite it could have come straight out of the late George Best’s box of tricks.
10 Luciano Orquera (Italy) – played the biggest match of his life as architect-in-chief of a victory which ought to do wonders for the Italian game.
9 Conor Murray (Ireland) – underlined his Lions potential by seeing off the main man in South Africa four years ago, Mike Phillips.
1 – Cian Healy (England) – stole a big Lions march on opposite number Gethin Jenkins in readiness for Sunday’s head-to-head with England’s Dan Cole.
2 – Rory Best (Ireland) – looked every inch the Lions Test hooker except for the ten minutes when he took a yellow for the team.
3 – Martin Castrogiovanni (Italy) – irresistible warrior with more hair than his Welsh counterpart Adam Jones and probably more Test tries (12) than any other prop.
4 – Joe Launchbury (England) – continues to be one of the discoveries of the season and he’s still only 21.
5 – Geoff Parling (England) – an increasingly influential figure in a pack bracing itself for Sunday’s acid test in Dublin.
6 – Alessandro Zanni (Italy) – measured high enough on the Richter scale to squeeze in ahead of Anglo-Irish alternatives Tom Wood and Peter O’Mahony
7 – Sean O’Brien (Ireland) – prodigious impact all over the field by making surely more tackles and metres than any other flanker.
8 – Sergio Parisse (Italy) – at last gaining overdue reward for his perennial status as Europe’s most consistent No. 8.