ROME – Italy rugby great Sergio Parisse bid farewell to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome this weekend with another bitter disappointment as the Azzurri snatched a 25-14 defeat from the jaws of victory against France.
Even in defeat, the 35-year-old Parisse was the star of the show, setting up Tito Tebaldi's second-half try to cap a dominant performance which earned the skipper the Man of the Match award.
It was the final Six Nations game for 138-times capped Parisse and fellow Italy veterans Leonardo Ghiraldini (104) and Alessandro Zanni (111).
But it ended with a 22nd consecutive defeat in the tournament, a fourth consecutive Wooden Spoon for a whitewash, and Ghiraldini's knee injury.
"There's frustration at such a missed opportunity," said number eight Parisse of "probably" his last game in Rome.
"I don't know if it's my last game, we don't care," he said.
"I can't find the words because we leave this game with the feeling of having dominated.
"We lost so many opportunities."
Parisse's towering presence has accompanied Italy for nearly two decades.
Born in Argentina to Italian parents, Parisse arrived in Europe to play for Italy's youth teams.
He quickly established his reputation and before he turned 19 had earned his first cap with a baptism of fire against the All Blacks in June 2002.
Seventeen years and 138 caps later, the Stade Francais captain has spent half of his life in the Italy jersey.
The World Cup in Japan from September 20 to November 2 should mark the end of his international career, allowing him to close the gap on New Zealand's Richie McCaw's record of 148 caps.
In the Six Nations, Parisse is already out on front with a record 69 matches played, 51 as captain, overtaking Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll's 65 this campaign.
But victories have been rare - 33 in total, only nine in the Six Nations, the last against Scotland in 2015.
Coach Conor O'Shea insists the Azzurri are on the right path despite being thrashed 47-14 by England in Twickenham and losing 26-15 to Wales and 26-16 to Ireland in Rome.
"I'm convinced that our work is the right one and with a global view my dream, with Sergio, is to see the results in Japan," said the Irishman.
But Toulouse hooker Ghiraldini's knee injury could rule him out of the World Cup.
"At the end of the game, seeing Leo with crutches was hard," said Parisse fighting back the tears.
"There is so much work behind the scenes. With Leo we have experienced many things and seeing him on crutches is unfair.
"I know he will do everything to recover for the World Cup because, believe me, I don't care about what will be written between now and September, we want to go there to follow our dream."
After Rome, Italy prepare for the Japan campaign, followed by a first Six Nations without Parisse.
Asked by AFP before last year's tournament if he ever reflected on what the team would be like without their iconic captain, O'Shea admitted: "Yes, all the time.
"I want to be able to sit down in 10 years with Sergio with a beer in Rome, watching a match of a competitive Italy every week at the highest level and say 'we were part of that'.
"I've never met anyone like him, as a player and man. He's amazing. It has been a privilege to know him."AFP