ROME (Reuters) - The 2019 Six Nations was a watershed moment for women’s rugby in Italy as the country took the runners-up spot after finishing in the bottom two on nine of their previous 12 appearances.
The Azzurre’s stunning 31-12 bonus point victory over France on the final day of last year’s championship launched them into the top two, marking their best-ever finish.
At the centre of it all was dynamic flanker Giada Franco, who stood out with a string of impressive performances in only her second Six Nations.
“You need time to improve as a group,” she told Reuters in an interview.
“We arrived with self-confidence, with a mix between young players with lots of energy and excitement, and a good group of experienced players able to lead the team, especially in the more difficult matches.”
Franco scored three tries and finished in the top five players at the tournament for carries, metres made, offloads and turnovers, earning a move to Harlequins Ladies.
While the manner of Italy’s achievement took many pundits by surprise, the 23-year-old explained that it was simply a case of the team realising their potential.
“We didn’t say before the Six Nations that we wanted to win it, come second or third,” she said.
“We asked ourselves to put in our best performance and keep learning from our mistakes. We weren’t surprised by how we played, because we knew we could do that”.
As well as Italy performed, there was no hiding from the gaping chasm between the runners-up and champions England.
The Red Roses won the Grand Slam with a points difference of +233, securing try bonus points in every game to finish 11 points clear of the Italians.
“I think that England is the best nation in women’s rugby,” Franco said.
“I’m lucky to play here in England in the Premier 15 and I can tell you that they are really working hard, so they deserve all the results they’ve achieved.
“There’s a big gap between England and France, who are the first two usually, and the others.”
“The level is going up year-by-year,” she added.
“I think all the teams are working to close this gap and always be as competitive as we can.
“I hope in a couple of years that we are as competitive as them in all the tournaments.”
Of Italy’s 23-strong squad named for the Six Nations opener away to Wales on Sunday, Franco is one of just four who play their club rugby outside the country.
The flanker remains hopeful the national team’s success can filter down to grassroots level in Italy and help produce a new generation of talent, as well as improving the domestic league in which so many Azzurre players feature.
“In terms of the growth of the game, for sure winning matches will help,” she said.
“When we won at home there were 400 to 500 people watching, and I’m quite sure that all of them will be at the next game.
“If the crowds grow, we’ll have more players in the future, more people who start playing.
“It’s fundamental to develop our movement, especially in Italy, where we’ve not got the numbers of the other nations when it comes to current players.
“The results can help, but we still have to work on our league and especially on the youngsters, to make sure that these results can be continued in the next few years.”
Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris