Ivan Francescato, perhaps the most vivid of the brilliant generation of players who made Italy’s inclusion in the Six Nations championship irresistible by their performances in the 1990s, would have been 50 on Friday Feb. 10.
One reason why he is so memorable is that he died young, in 1999, a few weeks short of his 32nd birthday. But his play would still be remembered if he were still amongst us, most of all for two spectacular tries near the beginning and end of his 38 match international career.
In 1991 — as a scrum-half playing only his fifth international match — he sliced unstoppably through the USA defence in Italy’s World Cup match at Otley. Coming just after half-time, it was the vital blow on the way to Italy’s 30-9 victory.
Six years on in his final season of international rugby, his solo dash from centre opened the scoring as Italy shocked France — who had clinched a Five Nations grand slam only a week earlier — 40-32 in the FIRA final at Grenoble.
Both showed the qualities remembered by Australian giant Michael Lynagh from his time playing alongside Francescato in Italian club rugby at Treviso.
“If he found himself in a bit of space, there would be that huge sidestep and with his hair flying everywhere, he would be gone. He was not big or powerful, but he was electric and the supporters loved him,” said Lynagh.
He came from a remarkable rugby-playing family. They were Sardinian in origin, but had moved with their father Orestes, an asparagus grower, to the Veneto where all six sons took up the game.
Ivan was the youngest of the six. Of his elders Bruno, Nello and Rino all played for Italy at centre and the great Welsh coach Carwyn James — who coached Rovigo — reckoned Nello and Bruno were the finest centres in the world in the late 1970s.
Luca and Manuel both played First Division club rugby. Ivan, named for the midwife who at his birth jokingly labelled him ‘Ivan the Terrible’, started in club rugby with Tarvisium but when they were relegated he moved to Treviso and won the first of his four national championships in 1988.
His first national team call-up came in a brief appearance as a replacement against an England XV, including such luminaries as Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Wade Dooley and Brian Moore in May 1990. His first cap came in October that year in a World Cup qualifier against Romania.
He announced himself with a spectacular solo score after 24 minutes. As Italian historians Francesco Volpe and Valerio Vecchiarelli recalled: “With him on the field, the rhythm of play sparkled unpredictably.
“He took the initiative with burning pace and a dummy which, while always the same, would fool opponents across the world… a 45 metre zig-zagging dash which made the Romanians look like mannequins.”
Italy’s 29-21 win signalled a shift in the balance of power. Romania had won their last four meetings, and seven out of 10 across the previous decade. Italy would win six out of seven, their only loss the one match in which Francescato did not play, over the next seven years.
Italy’s victory in Bucharest the following April was their first in 38 years. If Otley was the highlight — even if one Italian was overheard likening the conditions to a ‘potato field’ — it was not his only contribution to the 1991 World Cup.
He had a first-half try disallowed as Italy went down 36-6 to England at Twickenham and contributed to a superb fightback against the All Blacks at Leicester, a 31-21 defeat which prompted former All Black skipper Wayne Shelford to say that ‘New Zealand won, but it was Italy’s triumph’.
But coach Bernard Fourcade was not wholly convinced by his individualism at scrum-half, tending after the World Cup to prefer the more orthodox talents of Francesco Pietrosanti and Umberto Casellato – and after 1994 the emergence of Alessandro Troncon ended any debate.
Francescato made his first appearance as a centre against Scotland A in 1992 — but only became a regular from 1994 — his reappearance outside Troncon and Diego Dominguez giving Italy a cutting edge which saw them record a first victory over Five Nations (now Six Nations) opposition, against Ireland in 1995.
They repeated this twice over the next couple of years, and followed up with wins over Scotland and France, three single-figure defeats by Wales and the administration of a severe scare to England in a World Cup qualifier at Huddersfield.
Francescato also won a single cap on the wing against Wales at Cardiff in 1994 — scoring in the first few minutes — and made an emergency reappearance at scrum-half in the Italy championship final of 1997 after Troncon was taken ill before the match.
He ended his international career as he had begun — scoring twice in yet another victory over Romania before crossing for his 16th and last try for Italy in his 38th match — the 62-31 defeat by South Africa at Bologna on 8th November 1997.
Injuries kept him out of the Italy team in 1998, but he won a fourth Italian title with Treviso and opened a bar with team-mate Piero Dotti which became a gathering place for the local rugby community.
He remained an active Treviso player — still hopeful of an international recall — right up to his shockingly sudden death in January 1999. Club president Fabrizio Gaetaniello was to recall that ‘only last night he was happy, laughing and joking with his team-mates in the gym’.
He collapsed and died in the early hours of Jan. 18th after a night out with his partner and friends. The post mortem showing a heart-attack brought on by arteries which — in spite of his supreme athleticism — were those of a man twice his age.
It was a savage blow to the morale of Italian rugby. As Volpe and Vecchiarelli wrote : “He was the glue which held the Azzurri together – not the only one, but still irreplaceable.”
Italy’s failure to fulfil the potential evident in the mid to late 1990s has complex, multi-faceted roots which go far beyond the sudden death of a hugely popular player, but it certainly did not help.
His funeral, at which a coffin draped with Troncon’s No. 9 Italy shirt was carried by his five brothers and Dotti — himself fated to die in his 40s of a heart-attack — attracted more than 5,000 mourners.
Treviso retired his No. 13 shirt — replacing it with a No. 18 — and his name lives on in memories of the era, film of those spectacular tries and the name of Italy’s national academy for under 19 and under 20 players at Modigliano.
And it might just carry into a new generation.
The new Ivan Francescato — son of Manuel — does not remember his uncle. He is only 16, so was born in 2000, the year after his death.
But he is a centre and scrum-half and has won a place at the national academy for his age group.
Given that extraordinary family heritage, nobody in rugby’s most Catholic nation would be too surprised by a second coming.