The Rugby Paper
Farewell to Massimo Cuttitta, a force of nature for Italy in the 90s
THE death of Massimo Cuttitta earlier this week of Covid-related issues at the age of just 54 was not only very sad in human terms but also a poignant reminder of the quality of player Italy once possessed.
Cuttitta, below, a delightful old school rugby fanatic, was a class prop and one of half a dozen or more players Italy possessed in the early and mid-1990s who could hold their own in any company. Indeed a couple were genuinely world class, ie they would have been contenders for a hypothetical World XV of their era.
Older brother, wing Marcello, was certainly in that category, a brilliant operator in his pomp in the early 1990s while Diego Dominguez was a little genius and to this day one of the greatest goalkickers the game has seen. Paolo Vaccari on the opposite wing to Cuttitta was a terrific player in his own right, Allesandro Troncon a pugnacious battler at scrum-half, and Massimo Giovanelli a warrior at flanker.
Meanwhile in the front row the formidable Franco Properzi Curti always reminded me of French minder Gerald Cholley. He was not a man to pick an argument with, or indeed a fight and would be much in demand among Europe’s top clubs these days.
There were others who also drew the attention. The dashing Ivan Francescato, a centre by inclination who nonetheless often played scrum-half or wing, back five tyro Carlo Checcinato and a dazzling young dasher Massimo Ravazzolo who suffered badly with injury and eventually flattered to deceive. I remember Ravazzolo once upstaging a star-studded England Colts team including Lawrence Dallaglio at Grange Road for Italy U19.
A talented bunch who I covered for much of this period after they had been put on notice by IRB chairman Vernon Pugh to prove themselves worthy of inclusion in an expanded Five Nations. The enlightened Pugh was a fan of Italian rugby ever since he took a fortnight off work to watch the World Students Cup there in 1992. Italy – fielding a remarkably mature looking students XV! – lost a thrilling semi-final to France in front of a big crowd in L’Aquilla.
That tournament is where I first really clocked some of those
involved, indeed on more than one occasion I thumbed a lift on the Italy team coach as they zigzagged across the country. An entertaining crowd and very different times. You would never be allowed such access and proximity these days.
After Pugh threw down the gauntlet, Italy responded to that pressure with wins over fullstrength Scotland, Ireland and France sides –indeed they beat the Irish three times and France and Scotland XVs on other separate occasions.
There is no doubt, however, that the hard toil of the 90s drained a team, and group, that were in any case already growing old together. To a certain extent they staggered into the Six Nations. They had one huge game left in them – that famous opening day win over champions Scotland – but that was the final emptying of the tanks. Life became something of a struggle after that.
Massimo Cuttitta, along with the inspirational Giovannelli, was the heart and soul of that pioneer Italian
group. He is sometimes listed as a South African-Italian but that frankly was an insult. Yes, he and Marcello spent some schoolboy years in Durban where his father worked but he was born and died in Lazio and you could travel the length and breadth of Italy and not encounter a more ‘Italian’ individual.
In terms of stature as a player he often reminded me of Samoa’s Peter Fatialofa. Both good props but much more than that – wise, sage, totem pole individuals around whom the team automatically gathered whether he was captain or not.
As it happened he did frequently skipper the side and life for him, and Italy, was probably never so good as it was in 1997.
In January that year he led Italy to one of their greatest ever triumphs – a thumping 37-29, four tries to one win – over a fully booted and suited Ireland at Lansdowne Road where there was only one team in it. Remarkably there was better to come late in March when they travelled to Grenoble to tackle Grand Slam-winning France. Something was in the air because many Italy supporters also made the trip to the old Stade Lesdiguières in Grenoble and staged an impressive pitch invasion to celebrate their superb 40-32 win, a scoreline which slightly flattered the shellshocked French.
Happily there was also an RAI news crew in attendance as well as French TV so we have images of Italy’s French coach George Costes – Italy’s best ever coach – being required by Cuttitta and the team to undertake a striptease on the team bus to the accompaniment of ‘Get them down you Zulu warriors’. Like I say different times.
The Irish visited Bolgona later in that annus mirablis for Italy intent on revenge and this time got thumped even more convincingly, being sent packing 37-22 with Massimo Cuttitta again to the fore. A fearsome looking Irish front five were monstered from start to finish. Heady days for Italy which gave substance to the notion they could become major players on the international scene.
Massimo Cuttitta was a strong man but above all else a seriously good technician in an era when you rarely, if ever, saw an Italy scrum inconvenienced. It was therefore no surprise that he forged a second career as a scrum coach with Harlequins, Romania, Portugal, Canada and, most prominently, Scotland. A considerable rugby man who will be much missed by many in the game.