The heartland of Italian rugby is an extended triangle that runs from Treviso, in the East near Venice, over to Brescia and towards Milan in the West, and then South to the River Po and Parma. By an unfortunate coincidence, this triangle also contains the two areas which have been worst hit by the new coronavirus epidemic — the so-called “red zones” near Lodi and Padua, which have been sealed off over the past week.
Lombardy has recorded by far the largest number of cases, over 400 on Friday, with a total approaching 250 in Emilia Romagna and Veneto. With schools, colleges and business shutting down, and a curfew in the worst-affected towns, it was inevitable that Italy’s game in Dublin would be called off, and Italian fans were expecting the bad news.
Italy’s rugby heartland is one of the wealthiest parts of the country, and part of that prosperity comes from its important commercial and trading links with the Far East. There are hundreds of new Chinese-owned companies, and thousands of Italian businesses trading with China. So as well as the immediate human impact of this epidemic, there is bound to be a longer-term economic impact.
Those effects are already being felt with the collapse of tourism. Bookings are down 40% according to local tourist boards. Venice is obviously one of the places most affected, but even around Parma (well away from the red zones) all farm holidays have been cancelled. Italy as a whole may be pushed into a recession as a result of the crisis.
Sporting events are of marginal importance at a moment like this, but the effect of a long-term crisis could be serious for Italian rugby.
The sport is still struggling for credibility in the country, where it attracts far less attention than football or cycling, but also less media coverage than basketball and volleyball. The continual failure of the Azzurri to do themselves justice in the Six Nations is a big factor.
Even when Italy perform creditably, as in their recent match in Paris, they seem dogged by misfortune. One good showing is inevitably followed by disappointment in the following game. They played some exciting rugby in the World Cup, but were let down by indiscipline and the cancellation of their glamour match against the All Blacks.
Benetton Treviso and Zebre are still plugging away in European competition, and Benetton have enjoyed some tight encounters this season. It would take a major crisis for their sponsorship to be in doubt: Benetton is identified with Treviso the city as well as Treviso the club.
The question is more how the sport comes through this emergency. The two areas most affected have a total population of 50,000. Rugby is now more entrenched in that triangle than ever before, with numerous small local clubs, and the geography is also shifting, at least in the lower leagues. By extending the season into May-June, as announced on Friday, the Italian Rugby Federation believes it can ride out any crisis. They are in a better position than the football authorities, who have very little room for manoeuvre because of the European championship.
The worry is if the emergency measures continue into the spring. Rugby in Italy is more firmly rooted than it can seem from the outside, but it is still a relatively fragile plant.