Italian Rugby took a bashing from the seasonal armchair experts last Spring for their performance in the Six Nations. We wrote this especially for those who think they know best. Rugby in Italy is booming.
Located around an hour south of Milan & surrounded by the agriculturally rich hills of Emilia-Romagna, the picturesque city of Parma is a hidden gem often hidden away in the footnotes of the Italian Tourist Books.
A culinary mecca [almost] without comparison, this one-time hotspot of Verdi and Opera et al, is also a pulsing hot-spot of the oval-game in Italy.
I write this article in the aftermath of another Italian disappointment in the 2016 Six Nations competition. Those languid one-liners, 'they're getting better,' 'they'll get there one day,' have been replaced with similarly inaccurate waffle about relegation in some cases and kicking them out altogether. Che cazzata.
My recent visit to Italy centred around chaperoning a touring side from Yorkshire. A successful U17 team who had finished second in their regional division, qualifying into the National Junior Colts Cup. No mean achievement at all.
Parma the destination for their tour & Rugby Piacenza, the first test. Piacenza Rugby play their Rugby on the regional circuit. They're not a top club by any means, but are highly representative of the rugby clubs nationwide. Proudly run by a committed few, and enjoyed by players and supporters of all ages.
Like many clubs in Italy, Piacenza are fervently supported by families, friends and locals alike. From the moment the visitors arrived, the club started to swell with interested onlookers. The attention around the international visitors was grand. The Italian tre-colori flew proudly next to the Union Flag as we entered & it wasn't long before the accompanying parents were welcomed to generously sample the refreshments on offer.
It was ten years ago that I got my first taste of Italian Rugby. This same enthusiasm was evident back then. However, this enthusiasm generally wasn't matched with quality coaching or organisation within these grass roots clubs - a lot of raw talent, but nobody putting a harness on it.
The game was lively. The Italians were typically tenacious & their visitors looked to move the ball where possible. Two contrasting styles of Rugby cancelling each other out. The game was 12-12 at half-time. The visitors nudged into a lead, before the Italian hosts ran in three tries late-on to win 31-15. Piacenza were aggressive, organised, skilful and clinical. An impressive performance.
It should be noted that the majority of Italian Clubs split their age groups every two years rather than the British one. U18, U16, U14 & U12 teams make up the system. It was a mix of U17 and U18 players who took on their ever so slightly younger English guests.
However, typical Italian Club 1, good English visitors, nil.
It is without doubt, the natural talent in Italian Rugby is in abundance. These kids were fit, well-drilled, hugely enthusiastic and without doubt bursting with potential. They were also a long way short of being the best in the region, province or even, their city. I was thrilled to see that these kids were well coached and superbly organised - a massive positive step.
The tourists made their base near Parma, at a superb Holiday Village in the Emilia-Romagna countryside, some 40 minutes from the city.
The next trip on tour was to the home of Zebre, one of Italy's two professional rugby franchises. Their complex is known as Cittadella del Rugby, or, the little city of rugby. A stylish 5,000 seater stadium is the centrepiece & home of the Zebra. It is flanked by two sparkling 3G pitches, two more grass pitches, a stunning clubhouse and several pop-up match day bars.
The visitors were met by Mils Muliana & Marco Bortolami. 211 International Caps between them along with a World Cup Winners medal for one & national hero status for the other. The two legends put the visitors through their paces during an excellent guest coaching session.
That afternoon, the visitors were free to roam Parma. Even the normally unenthusiastic seventeenagers, couldn't help but compliment the stunning Centro Storico. The immense Palazzo Pilotta dominates the skyline, with the Teatro Reggio, the Duomo & Battistero and the buildings around the Piazza Garibaldi lying in an impressive wake.
There is a relaxed and social atmosphere about Parma. The park around the Palazzo is a mix of sun worshippers and idle procrastinators. The Piazza surrounded with café's and bars dishing out aperitivos & cocktails. The city is friendly, relaxed and full of exploring. I thought it absolutely perfect for a group of 15-17 year olds at that dangerous age of wanting to get off the leash, but not knowing what to do when that happens!
Parma is very much La Dolce Vita.
Following a Dinner at which can only be described as a cross between your local Open-Mic venue and posh Nando's, the group were back off to the Holiday Camp.
The next game was back at Cittadella. The venue is shared by Amatori Parma, one of the cities many clubs, and one of the largest youth set-ups in the north of the country. One of the few clubs able to field a genuine U17 team, Amatori are magnificent hosts. Their welcome was over and above the required or expected level. The values & traditions are very much alive and kicking. Their clubhouse doubles up as a superb little restaurant, with a sun terrace and Wood Oven outside. An enormous curved screen couples with a serious sound system to make this the place to watch live sport!
Played out under the blazing Easter sun, the English got their tour off and running with a victory of around five tries to three. I'd delve deeper, but my responsibilities were with an injured tourist who spent the afternoon being scanned and plastered in the local hospital.
A traditional dinner & a compelling Go-Karting Grand Prix brought an end to the tour.
My initial aim was to ensure the tourists had a successful & enjoyable tour. That was achieved in abundance.
In a nod to the coincidental appointment of Conor O'Shea as the new Head Coach of Italian Rugby, I can only say this. The playing numbers, enthusiasm, commitment, facilities, tradition, role-models, league structure, sporting passion, family support and ability are there.
For a man who is renowned for implementing successful developmental structures, he must be licking his lips at the prospect of being the man to throw the harness on this animal. I just sincerely hope that he is allowed to do so.
To read a little more about our Tours to Parma, click here.