Italy, a land of unrealised rugby opportunity

The Federazione Italiana Rugby (F.I.R.) enjoyed one of their best results in what has been a pretty miserable test rugby history when they beat the Springboks 20-18 in Florence in 2016. A rare outstanding achievement put into perspective by the overall test losing record of played 15 lost 14 at an average losing score of 12-47 against South Africa.

It’s fair comment to suggest that in the past, no ambitious young Saffa player has ever been big on moving to Italy. The country doesn’t have the best of rugby images. The money isn’t great and there is generally a feeling that Italian teams at international and Pro14 level lose most of the matches that matter. Their unimaginative brand of rugby has also been hard to stomach at times. Italy has tended to be the place a foreigner ends up when other doors have been shut, occasionally slammed shut. It’s the land of the forgotten players – even the most avid world rugby walking encyclopedias in SA generally don’t know the names of the top Italian players and don’t seem cared about improving their knowledge of what goes on East of the French border.

Yet one cannot help but feel that Italy has untapped potential to perform better. This is based on the Mediterranean nation’s rugby foundations, economy and access to tier-1 competitions. If the F.I.R. set their goals a wee bit higher and became a little more ruthless and unfazed by public opinion in pursuit of those objectives, the fine-tuning could transform the term ”Azzurri” into a well-known rugby brand with positive connotations.

The view taken is based on a realisation that given the lack of genuine talent available in Italy, rugby opportunities are always going to exist for foreigners needed to bolster their two Pro14 teams to eventually meet the residency requirement and become Italian test players. The rationale behind the step up would be to make every effort to acquire a higher calibre of foreign players to fill these spots instead of settling for the evident leftovers.

The Sunday Tribune reported on 27/09/2020 that current Kearsney College captain and 2019 Craven Week player Mass Fierro, who is of Italian descent, was identified to join a number of other Italian junior players at the F.I.R. Academy in Brescia. The Academy seems like a promising initiative. It focuses on preparing a squad to participate u20 World Rugby Championships and has the longer term goal of bridging the gap to senior professional rugby.

The real-deal sophisticated youth academy system on par with what pro level club football offers, is yet to establish its at some point in European rugby’s future. Right now South Africa is better organised and therefore provides a better platform for junior player development. SA is past its peak now. The downward spiral has set in. Financial and other challenges have severally dented the development path with the number of viable opportunities available to school leavers vastly reduced. Sadly this trend looks set to only move in one direction from here on out. Considering of the surplus of good young forwards available in SA or even the abundance of backline prospects among the Pacific Island youth, the right kind of F.I.R. packages aimed at carefully identified future stars and back up by a world class development structure, has massive potential to reform top level Italian rugby in the years to come.

South African’s who have seized the opportunity to play test rugby for Italy

1 Wim Visser Maritzburg College 1999
2 Gert Peens Helpmekaar 2002
3 Carlo del Fava Queen’s 2004
4 Roland de Marigny Westville 2004
5 Ben de Jager 2006
6 Jaco Erasmus 2008
7 Quintin Geldenhuys Monument 2009
8 Corniel van Zyl 2011
9 Tobie Botes Boland Landbou 2012
10 Sebastian Negri Hilton 2016
11 Braam Steyn Paul Roos 2016
12 Dries van Schalkwyk St Andrew’s School 2016

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