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FEATURE 'We feel like Balotelli: why always us?' Behind the scenes at win-starved Zebre Parma

'We feel like Balotelli: why always us?' Behind the scenes at win-starved Zebre Parma
7 months ago

David Sisi has played 91 games for Zebre Parma and won less than a quarter. Eighteen of his 21 victories were spread across his first three seasons in Italy. Since 2020, the powerhouse lock has been on the winning side just three times.

These have been bruising years for Zebre Parma. The franchise went the entirety of last season without winning a match. The campaign before, they earned a solitary victory against a weary and mutinous Dragons. Their losing run stands at 28 and that downing of the Welsh region remains their only triumph in 56 attempts.

Along the way, Zebre Parma suffered a litany of stomach-churning near misses, hard-luck stories and coulda-woulda-shoulda howlers. They lost a cracker to Leinster by four points and another insane game to the Sharks by five. They led Edinburgh in Scotland deep into the second half and fell away. They pushed Toulon, the Challenge Cup winners, to the wire. They lost by a score to Cardiff and then Ospreys in Parma.

They started this season by blowing a tantalising opportunity to sink Ulster, then went down in Swansea by just four points. They seem to find new, agonising ways of loading up the gun and emptying both barrels into their foot.

Zebre Parma lost a heart-stopping URC opener to Ulster (Photo by Luca Amedeo Bizzarri/Getty Images)

“The list just gets longer,” Sisi laughs, ruefully. “Even a lot of the games when we might have taken 50, we were in the game up until 60 minutes. That happened a lot.

“You feel like the Mario Balotelli of the league: why always us?”

Sisi fetched up in Parma in 2017, as Michael Bradley took over the club and instilled a brand of swashbuckling, seat-of-the-pants rugby to win the hearts of the locals. For a time, it worked. But as players came and went in great annual swathes, the age of the squad tumbled and opponents sussed the flair game.

“We needed to create an identity because there wasn’t much of one beforehand. We had some pretty big successes for us, catching teams by surprise. But they knew we were wall-out attack, figured out how we ran that attack and became too easy to defend.

“We ended up killing ourselves, overplayed in the wrong areas, and that happened last year as well.”

I’m far more entertained than I am watching some of the top teams.

The ambition remains undimmed, but there’s an understanding Zebre Parma cannot stick so rigidly to this blueprint. Last season, they had the leakiest defence, shakiest lineout and worst goalkicking stats in the URC. They shipped an eye-watering 105 tries, 30 more than the next-poorest side.

Over the summer, Richard Hodges arrived from Cardiff to look after the defence and has talked long and loud about the need to kick more ball. Josh Syms, a New Zealander, landed from America and so far has overseen the best lineout in the competition. Of 38 throws, Zebre Parma have only bungled one.

And the Italians still boast that glorious, rip-roaring rugby in spades. Six tries were stuck on Ulster, the sternest defence the URC had to offer last year. Another five against the Ospreys and four more against the Bulls. The league’s top try-scorers, Simone Gesi and Scott Gregory, and the top assister, Geronimo Prisciantelli, are Zebre boys.

“It sounds a bit ridiculous with the losing streak we’re on, but I’ve sat there and played in games watching guys scoring the tries, and I’m far more entertained than I am watching some of the top teams,” Sisi goes on.

Sisi featured for Italy at the Rugby World Cup in France (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

“It’s a proper brand of rugby we play. I’m proud we’ve stuck by that. Absolutely, it loses you games, but at other times it brings utter joy.

“Everyone from the outside sees another loss, but within those games has been some proper world-class rugby.”

Steadily, a callow squad is growing, hardened by URC exposure and steeled by the ache of defeat. The Italian pathway is churning out prospects at a heartening rate and plenty of them wind up in Parma. Gesi, 22, averages a try every 106 minutes. Full-back Lorenzo Pani, a year younger, played with Sisi at the Rugby World Cup. Luca Andreani, Giacomo Ferrari and Luca Rizzoli are staking major claims up front. These are the raw materials of a seriously potent unit, experience gradually baked in to a youthful core.

This, most of all, is what keeps Sisi going. How he deals with the constant angst and the dollop of ridicule ladled on by critics.

We face the same challenge every single week. But we turn up and put in crazy performances.

“You talk about how you pull yourself out of bed on a Monday to go again, it’s that which often drives me: the next crop of senior players are here already. They’re eating all this s**t. It sounds ridiculous but it’s going to serve them well in future. They’ll remember this and drive that next generation.

“For all the issues in Italy, the U20s are producing players. If you get those systems in place, a competitive URC side with an Italian player base which is finding success, it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll have a real culture and identity out here in Parma. People are seeing that. We all would have liked it to happen faster but you just can’t replace experience. It can’t come from anywhere else than living these moments together.

“I’m looking forward to watching this team when I’m done and seeing where they take it. The foundations are there and they are the hardest things you can build in a club.”

Part of the Zebre culture is to relish the role of the outsider.

“You have to understand we say the same thing every single week,” Sisi continues. “We face the same challenge every single week. But we turn up and put in crazy performances.

“We don’t fear anyone else in this league, and we probably should when you think about the big-picture stuff. If you wanted to pile things up and put it on paper I wouldn’t argue with you, but you buy a ticket and you will see we are not afraid of any team, particularly at home. That’s what we look forward to.

“We are usually disappointed when teams don’t put their first XV out against us. We prefer going toe-to-toe with everything every team has got. Half our lads are so enthusiastic, that actually spurs them on.”

Scotland v Italy - Guinness Six Nations
Simone Gesi earned his Italy debut against Scotland in this year’s Six Nations Championship (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Federugby via Getty Images)

Zebre’s start to the campaign mirrors that of a year ago – if anything, the losses have been ever more sickening. So far, so familiar. Yet the punters have not given up on their team.

“There’s a fan club called East 115,” Sisi says. “They were banging drums, making noise, letting off smoke bombs at our first match. A proper group.

“These are fans who have just sat through a whole year, seen how close we were, and lived and breathed these losses and performances and come back stronger this year. I think they also see and believe the foundations are there. They’re not going to rock up on a December evening if they don’t think we’ve got something about us. We massively appreciate that.

“When we get some victories, I think the city of Parma will start turning up. But it’ll be these guys, and all the others who watched through this series of results, that we’ll remember.”

But when will that utopia dawn? Friday night, when the Sharks rumble into Parma, offers an appetising chance. It sounds bonkers – the Sharks’ budget dwarfs Zebre’s, they contributed seven men to the Springboks’ World Cup retention and field half a dozen South African internationals in their starting line-up – but the visitors’ European tour has been desperate. Meek losses in Limerick and Dublin were followed by a truly grim 19-5 reverse against the Ospreys.

Zebre Parma know better than to take anything for granted, but there are confident murmurs rippling from their camp this week.

“I really feel this year we can take that big step forward,” Sisi says. “Finally, this is going to be the year when we stop saying ‘we were so close’ and start nicking a few, and we’ll be doing it because we are all a bit older and making smarter decisions.”

How will it feel when the drought ends and Zebre are winners again?

“After so long of competing and pushing, I’m almost a little bit numb to it. I feel like that’s a self-defence mechanism. When that whistle goes, it will probably punch me in the face. The cameras will tell a tale. There’ll be good times. A lot of emotion. It will just… whack.”

Zebre are still the underdog, no question. But an underdog finding its teeth.

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