On Saturday, 12 March 2011, Mirco Bergamasco wrote his name into Italian rugby folklore.
With five minutes left on the clock at Rome’s packed and raucous Stadio Flaminio, an offside penalty handed him the chance to complete an extraordinary comeback against France.
The kick was challenging, close to the touchline. But Bergamasco, head bowed in concentration, calmly stroked it between the posts to clinch the Azzurri’s first-ever Six Nations win over France.
When the full-time whistle sounded, it was met with an outpouring of emotion. Fists punched the air, tears streamed down cheeks and bodies collapsed to the ground.
Italy not only pulled off one of their greatest wins; they did so in the final international rugby game to be played at the Flaminio, giving the iconic stadium a fitting farewell.
“It was a symbolic victory,” Bergamasco tells World Rugby.
“The Flaminio in that era was our temple of rugby. We understood that against that France side, with those players, they were international players with incredible experience.
“But on that day, we knew we could make it difficult for them and that the strength was in the collective, not the individual.
“It was what we needed at that moment for Italians to continue to believe in rugby and maintain our passion.”
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NO STROLL TODAY
Bergamasco, of Racing Metro, was one of several Italy stars like Sergio Parisse, Andrea Masi, Gonzalo Canale and Andrea Lo Cicero who played their club rugby in France at the time.
Therefore, the dismissive attitude of some French journalists didn’t go unnoticed in the Italy camp leading up to kick-off.
“In the French newspapers there was a headline that day: ‘A stroll in Rome’,” Bergamasco recalls.
“They thought that France would come and win easily, strolling past us in Rome, in the last game that we would play at the Flaminio.
“I think that this lack of respect from the media created something in us unconsciously, it made us think we had to do something.”
It was Italy’s second win in 32 games against the French and their first at home, but the victory was made all the more remarkable by how unlikely it seemed with half an hour to go.
Morgan Parra scored and converted a try 10 minutes into the second half to open up a 12-point lead over the hosts at 18-6, but Bergamasco admits he has since forgotten quite how significant a margin he helped overturn.
“I honestly didn’t remember that we were 12 points down,” he says.
“We knew that to win we had to play for 80 minutes. Today I still don’t remember the 12-point gap.
“Probably I prefer to remember the positive bits, and the reaction that we had in the circumstances.
“In that match we didn’t think about distance in points but about continuing to do our job and going all the way, which paid off in the end.”
Little by little, Italy chipped away at the French advantage. Andrea Masi’s try in the corner after 59 minutes reduced the gap and Bergamasco nailed the conversion.
Bergamasco then slotted two more penalties either side of one from Parra, before sealing victory at the death with his iconic kick, which took his personal tally for the day to 17 points.
“Once we won the penalty, I heard Sergio (Parisse) call ‘posts’,” he recalls.
“It was reinforced by the fact that for Masi’s try, the conversion was more or less in the same position.
“It was a natural kick. Honestly, I went through my usual routine, I was thinking positive things as I kicked. But it’s not like I won this game by myself, it was a collective victory and a deserved result.”
A FOND FAREWELL
The momentous result provided the perfect way for fans and players to say goodbye to the Flaminio, before the Italian team moved across town to the much larger 70,000-seater Stadio Olimpico the following year.
The Flaminio, designed by renowned Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi and his son Antonio, opened in 1959 and was the home of the Azzurri from the moment they joined the Six Nations in 2000.
For the likes of Bergamasco, it held a particular emotional connection, both as the scene of unforgettable rugby moments and as a symbol of the sport’s rapid growth in the country during the 21st century.
“I started playing at the Flaminio in 2002,” he said.
“I remember in that era there were always more supporters of the other team than Italians. I saw a huge change from 2006, where slowly but surely there were more Italian fans.
“Having 30,000 people watching rugby in that era was incredible. But it was a symbol of the fact that we went out to show our passion in the games, and we managed to draw in people who maybe didn’t know about rugby.
“We needed fans, we needed people to come and support us and talk about us, because it was something that could help us to get positive results.
“On that day everyone knew it was the last game at the Flaminio and wanted to finish with a positive act.
“I think both the fans and the players on the pitch knew that they had to give everything to get that result.”