This article is intended for a non-Italian audience.
It happens every year, at least in recent times. During the weeks of the Six Nations tournament supporters from the Home Nations and France repeat the adagio: why is Italy even involved, since they aren’t level with the others? We’ve lost more than 30 matches in a row as of February 2022 and, besides a few brave games, we can’t compete against any of the other five. The last victory over France dates back to 2013, the last victory altogether was in 2015. Why is it taking so long to win a game in the tournament again? It is only legitimate for our “cousin” fans to wonder what are we even doing to fix this, and whether it makes sense to keep going together or to part ways. Are we renovating the structure of our grassroots rugby? Are we investing more money on the two professional teams? Are we setting up formation centers to increase the production of talent? In my opinion, to understand all of this one must take a step back and understand Italian rugby first. This article is an overview of the geography, the structure, and the raw numbers that underlie the Italian rugby movement.
A game of a few regions
First things first: more than half of our country has never seen a rugby game, has no interest in doing so, and even if occasionally does, doesn’t know the rules apart from the fact that you pass the ball backwards. This extends to all ages, from the old to the young. To the best of my knowledge there is at least one club in every region; however, only a few regions consider it as one of their top choices when it comes to playing a sport. This is of paramount importance in talent scouting: in England, for example, young boys and girls have the chance to try rugby at school and their talent may be discovered while not precluding their path to success in other sports. In Italy, sports practice is almost entirely up to private clubs, which do their best to attract kids, teenagers, and their parents with enticing advertisement. In most of Italy the top five sports would be soccer, volleyball, basketball, athletics and swimming, although this may vary depending on the region as we will see below. In many regions, in fact, rugby wouldn’t even be considered or available. According to Wikipedia there are around 1000 rugby clubs in Italy, while according to a document released by the FIR (Federazione Italiana Rugby) there are just slightly more than 500 affiliated clubs. Regardless of the validity of these two numbers, to put them into context there are more than 2000 clubs in England, and around 1800 in France. Most of the Italian clubs are based in a handful of regions, with the highest density in the North and North-East: Lombardia has 90 clubs and Veneto has 77 clubs. These two numbers have to be weighed by the number of inhabitants, which is twice as large in Lombardia (10 million people against 5). Hence, Veneto is the region with the highest density of clubs per capita, attesting around 1 club every 64,000 inhabitants. The whole North of Italy taken together accounts for approximately 23 million people and 297 clubs, hence averaging 1 club every 77,000 inhabitants (source: onRugby). These numbers are not even nearly matched in central and southern Italy, where club density goes from low to non-existent.
Many players in a few key cities
The total number of registered rugby players in Italy is about 80,000. A very similar number to the one of Wales, if not for the fact that the total inhabitants of the two countries are 60 million against 3. France (67 mil.) and England, (56 mil.) have 360,000 and 340,000 registered athletes, respectively. Finally, Ireland has 150,000 registered players while Scotland has 38,000, both with a population of about 5 million. The hard truth is that, in Italy, only 1 person out of 750 plays rugby, whereas in Wales it’s 1 out of 38. In Scotland, often compared to Italy in terms of rugby movement, it would be 1 out of 132 people. England and France are in similar ranges (1/164 and 1/186). Taken together, these numbers show the difference in importance rugby has in these countries.
When looking at the breakdown by city, these numbers offer a new perspective. In fact, while countries like England and France have a capillary distribution of clubs in their territory albeit somewhat uneven, Italy does not. According to an article from 2014, the three cities with the highest amount of rugby players are Rome (10,000 players), Milan (7,000 players), and Treviso (6,000 players). In the greater metropolitan areas of Rome and Milan live some 4.2 and 3.2 million people, respectively, while in Treviso the population is lower than 100,000 (150,000 accounting for the towns nearby). In density terms: 1/420 romans play rugby, 1/457 in Milan, and a striking 1/16 in Treviso. Data for the rugby strongholds of Padova and Rovigo, near Treviso, are likely to be similar to Treviso’s but they weren’t available. This triangle of rugby is the powerhouse of Italy’s rugby movement, and has produced a large fraction of the athletes that were ever capped in the National team.
A working class game
Rugby arrived in Italy across the end of the XIX century and the early XX century due to the many British mariners coming and going through the docks of Genoa. This is also how football arrived: “Genoa Cricket and Football Club”, now known as Genoa CFC, has been the first football club in Italy, founded in 1893. It is thanks to Stefano Bellandi, a passionate football and rugby fan, that rugby became popular in the north of Italy at the end of the XIX century. The first clubs were founded in Turin and in Milan, and thanks to the many Italian workers coming back from France, it picked up quickly in the North of Italy. It has to be said that its popularity rose during the Fascist regime due to the type of values that it was channeling. Honor, strength, camaraderie: all values that the regime was trying to use to its own agenda. Regardless of the political aspect of it, the diffusion of rugby picked up mostly in the North of Italy, with particular success in Veneto. A difference from how rugby developed in England, Scotland and Ireland, however, is that in Italy it has never been a game for rich boys in a fancy college. Just like in France or in Wales, in Italy it picked up more in the countryside and in the outskirts of cities, although with some exceptions. I am from Treviso, perhaps the most rugby-dense city of Italy, and I never had the feeling that around me on the stands were the richest strata of my community. On the contrary: the butcher, the farmer, the baker, the alpine guide and other people of similar social extraction are those who compose the demographic of the “Stadio Monigo” in Treviso. This applies to both men and women: women rugby is very popular as well.
Very few make it to the very top
Previously we talked about ~500 clubs affiliated with the FIR. This number must be contextualized. Of these clubs, in fact, only 232 have an academy that goes until U14. 165, instead, are the clubs who have up to the U18 squad. This means that half of our clubs can’t train athletes after their early teenage. These athletes will inevitably resource to other sports unless they show early talent. A big loss for the movement: most of these teenagers drop out because there isn’t a team to play in. Something has been attempted in recent years in order to reduce this talent loss. In 2021, the FIR president Marzio Innocenti and the FIGC (the soccer federation) president Gabriele Gravina signed a cooperation agreement that will facilitate the introduction of rugby in the schools alongside soccer. Considering how popular soccer is in Italy, this could be a quick way to bring rugby to teenagers who may have never tried it due to the lack of clubs in their territory.
In 2006, to maximize the potential of its few late-teenage athletes, Italy has set up a system of federal academies. The national academy “Ivan Francescato”, named after the unforgotten champion from Treviso and Italy who died way too young, has ever since produced many players that wore the “blue” of the senior national team. In a documentary from 2016, the academy system has been deemed a success. However, the quality of the training received by these players in the FIR academy was not matched by an adequate development of the top domestic league. To this day, unless players obtain a professional contract in the two Italian pro teams playing in the URC or with a team from abroad, they end up playing in a domestic league that is semi-pro at best, losing motivation and lacking compensation. Hence, while steps were taken in the direction of not losing the best talents at the age of 14, the current issue is not losing them by the time they’re 20. This is evident when looking at the results of the Italian U20 and U18 national teams, as pointed out in the latest video from Squidge Rugby.
Two professional teams, only one that delivers
From 2010, our movement has structured itself with two franchise teams that compete in the United Rugby Championship, a competition that features the top teams of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, South Africa and Italy. The most important of the two in teams in terms of fanbase and history is Benetton Treviso, to which this blog and podcast are dedicated. Treviso is perhaps the city with the highest density of rugby players in Italy, as shown above. Benetton, the famous fashion brand, was originally a local business in Treviso and has sponsored the team for many decades. The original plan of the FIR was to form a Venetian franchise called “i Dogi” that would represent the best talent from the five top Venetian sides: Treviso, Padova, Rovigo, Mogliano and San Donà. This project did not see the light due to insufficient funding, which is the reason why Treviso, being the most stable financially, joined the Celtic League on its own even beating the bid made by Rome. In 12 years of Celtic League Treviso consolidated its status in the competition and even reached a few milestones, such as the qualification to the Heineken Cup in 2018-19, the Coach of the Year award going to Kieran Crowley, and the victory of the 2021 Rainbow Cup. All in all, despite the missed opportunity to form a powerful regional franchise, Treviso has lived up to the expectations of the italian rugby movement.
The second franchise team has had an entirely opposite narrative arc. Currently named Zebre Parma, the team was originally called “Aironi” and based in another city (Viadana), combining the efforts of local excellence teams. Rugby Viadana, currently playing in the domestic league, was then replaced by Zebre Rugby at the end of the 2011-12 season due to financial difficulties. Zebre are based in Parma, a much larger city which offered more guarantees for development. However, after about 10 years of this experience, Zebre failed to become the second talent factory for the national team as it was expected of them, and did not manage to radicate themselves in the territory. Currently (2022) it is being discussed whether to relocate the franchise team to Padova, a team that plays in the domestic league but has similar money, manpower, and fanbase as Treviso. This would undoubtedly be a smart move from an economic and development perspective, but it comes at the risk of creating an internal fracture inside the Italian rugby movement that would see both franchise teams in Veneto, at just 50 km distance. The rest of the country would not feel as represented.
The domestic league could use some restructuring
The domestic league is called Top10, and features ten teams with a wide range of fanbase sizes and economical power. As of the 2021-22 season there are three macro-areas where these teams are based. The first batch of teams are Venetian sides which all contribute to the talent pool where Benetton Treviso usually seeks its young talents. The most historical sides of this group are Petrarca Padova and Rugby Rovigo, a heartfelt derby in the Venetian rugby scene, which has decided many Italian titles. The last clash was in the 2021 final, in which Rovigo had the best of Padova in a beautiful game with a last-minute try after several phases on the trenches near the try line. The cities of Padova and Rovigo are just 45 km far, and together with Treviso form a real “triangle of rugby” with intense rivalries and an incredible passion for this sport. The number of players of relevance who played for any of these three teams is so large that it would be hard to choose one as an example. The other Venetian team represented in the Top10 is Mogliano, a small city near Treviso, where the likes of Paolo Garbisi moved their first steps in a senior team. A second group of teams includes those in the area of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia: Rugby Calvisano, Valorugby Reggio Emilia, Rugby Viadana, Lyons Piacenza, Rugby Colorno. Many important players of the present and the past started here, for example Danilo Fischetti but also Martin Castrogiovanni, who both played in Calvisano in their early career. A third cluster is based in Rome and includes Fiamme Oro (the team of the national police) and Rugby Lazio. Despite being a known supporter of A.S. Roma, the current Italian captain Michele Lamaro has played for Lazio Rugby in his early days.
The 4 sides that end the Top10 regular season on the top of the table compete in a two-round playoff for the title. The last side, instead, gets relegated to the second division, called “Serie A”. Neiter Top10 nor Serie A have a fully professional organization, a fact that hinders the development of Italian rugby players and of the movement in general. Players often resource to other jobs and the transition between Top10 and Benetton/Zebre can be brutal on a player’s development. Currently, a general reform has been called to restructure the domestic league and apply a few governance principles that would favour injections of capitals from private investors, in an attempt to raise the bar and help the movement grow. Despite these announcements, however, the Top10 is a league in crisis that cannot even find a broadcaster to show its games. The games are currently streamed live on YouTube for free, thus not yielding money to the clubs. Partnerships with broadcasting networks and with the national TV have been seeked, a general reform of the Top10 has been announced by federal president Marzio Innocenti, but lots still has to be done to modernize the roots of Italian rugby.
Women rugby is a vital part of the movement
Women rugby is an important part of our rugby movement. The Italian women rugby National team has been part of the Women Six Nations Tournament since 2007 (edited post-publication) showing constant improvement. To this day, it is above Wales and Scotland in terms of wins in the tournament and points scored. The success of the women National team is due to a few very strong sides playing in the top women rugby tournament, the “Serie A femminile”. The most-winning team in the history of women rugby has been the Treviso Red Panthers, the women rugby team associated with Benetton Rugby Treviso, while in recent times the leaders of the women rugby Serie A have been other cities, most of them in Veneto (Padova, Villorba, Riviera del Brenta) but also in Lombardia and Emilia (Monza, Colorno). The current two most important players of the National team, Manuela Furlan and Sara Barattin, both played for the Red Panthers Treviso and now play for Villorba. The latter town (Villorba) is just 8 km far from the city center of Treviso, and has recently reached the spotlight due to its first-ever win of the Serie A in the 2018-2019 season, the last one to assign a winner before the pandemic started. This once again attests to the strength of rugby in the district of Treviso, and the importance it plays in the local community. A similar discourse can be made for the area of Padova, where the Valsugana Padova women rugby team is based. Valsugana Padova is one of the teams that contributes the most to the women National team. Overall, the development of women rugby in Italy has gone better than the most wishful predictions we could make just 20 years ago.
Many good players find fortune abroad
Despite the development of the movement since the year 2000, many talented Italian players don’t play in Italy. Not being as competitive or as rich as the English Premiership or the French Top14, the best talents often leave the country for stronger leagues. It is the case of Paolo Garbisi, Tommaso Allan, Federico Mori, Pietro Ceccarelli, Matteo Minozzi just to name some of the recent ones. In the past, up to 15-16 players of the National team used to play in France or England, attesting to the international appeal of their leagues against ours. Famous examples from the past are Sergio Parisse, who still plays for Toulon, Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester Tigers, Toulon, Racing), and both Mirco and Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français, Racing Metro). An argument that is often made is that neither the Italian domestic league nor the URC can give our top players the growth they need in order to be competitive at Six Nations level. This may be true because, contrary to Ireland, we do not have teams as rich and structured as theirs which can accomodate the development of many young players at once. Hence, many think that we should encourage the diaspora of players from Italy to other countries. Others, instead, think that only by keeping them in our teams we will fortify our movement and we will raise the bar of internal competition. Both arguments have some truth behind them, and it can be hard to pick a side. The current federal president Marzio Innocenti seems to lean on the first option, which he has demonstrated by authorizing the transfer of Paolo Garbisi to Montpellier, Tommaso Allan to the Harlequins, Marco Riccioni to the Saracens, and Federico Mori to Bordeaux in just one summer after years and years of talent retention (under a different FIR president).
What are the plans for the future?
After all this descriptive arguments, I hope you have a clearer view on our rugby movement. However, the real question is unchanged: what are we doing to make things better? I won’t deny that we as Italians ask ourselves this question as well, but in the last years some hope is finally seeping through. This does not come from the results obtained from the senior National team, of course, since it has reached an incredible score of consecutive losses at the Six Nations (34). What is giving us hope are the results of the age grade teams (U20, U18) of the FIR academy, which are beginning to regularly win matches and display large amounts of raw talent. Very recently, the Italian U20 National team won against England U20 in a sensational try-less match where both teams arm-wrestled each other in every ruck. This was the first ever victory against England of an Italian U20 selection, and it would have been the overall first-ever if not for the fact that a year ago the U18 selection also won against England. Some of the players that won with the U18 were also playing the U20 game this year. Although we can’t compare the level of a U20 selection with that of professional senior rugby, we are starting to see lots of talent coming through at a higher rate than before. This can only do good to the movement, but at one condition: there has to be a place where these athletes can compete at a high level after their cycle in the U20 selections is over. If not, they will regress into a semi-pro league that can’t offer them development, and the efforts to produce such good players will be in vain. Two are the major changes to be made: the second professional team has to become more competitive and structured, and the domestic league has to raise the bar to allow young player development. Our hope for the next years is to be able to do this and finally gain back the credibility that our movement has lost over the years.