It's 17 years since the Five Nations became the Six Nations championship. People forget it now but Italy won their first ever Six Nations game against the reigning champions. The flawless kicking of Diego Dominguez was instrumental in leading them to a 34-20 victory over Scotland. (It's true the Scots were reigning champions but they mounted an abysmal title defence, finishing bottom but avoiding the whitewash with a famous win over Grand Slam chasing England in the last game.)
Since then, Italy have remained perennial wooden spoon contenders. Given their playing population, this is hardly unsurprising. Here are the bald numbers. They have often beaten Scotland - the next weakest nation - winning 7 of their 17 encounters. They've have a couple of home victories over both Wales and France. While they beat a poor Ireland side a few times in late 90's test matches, it wasn't until 2013 that they struggled past an injury-demolished Ireland in Rome. They maintain a 0% record against England.
Twice they have recorded two Six Nations victories - 2007, 2013 - and reached 4th place in 2013, finishing ahead of Ireland and France. But 2016 represented a low point for Italian rugby. Very heavy beatings against Ireland and Wales indicated that the coaching reign of Jacques Brunel was coming to a dispiriting end.
For many neutrals, their rate of progress has been too slow/non-existent. Their possible relegation from the Six Nations in favour of either Georgia or Romania has occasionally been floated. A continuous relegation/promotion system has been advocated.
John Feehan, the Irish-born Six Nations chief, has dismissed the proposal. He insists that Italy have "improved dramatically" since entering the championship. This is allegedly obscured by the fact that all the other teams have improved dramatically.
Some comments are very unfair about Italy.
They have improved dramatically but other teams have improved dramatically - it's a relative thing. It's not that long ago they beat South Africa in the autumn series so they are capable of beating anyone on their day and worthy participants.
We are very happy with how the Italians are approaching things. There is a long way to go in terms of being competitive to win the title. But on any given day they can beat any of the sides and they have done that, apart from England.
Their new coach Conor O'Shea would appear to be making strides, as evidenced by their win over South Africa in November. He said this week that win could be Italy's 1978, fulfilling the same function for the Italian psyche as Munster's win over the All-Blacks did for the psyche in Munster.