On Sunday the 28th of May, the final of the Italian domestic rugby competition named “Top10” took place in the Stadio Lanfranchi, Parma (where Zebre host their games). Differently from the South African Currie Cup, in which the four URC franchises field a team, neither Benetton Treviso nor Zebre Parma have a domestic side that takes part in this tournament. Benetton used to participate in it until 2010, and has won it 15 times, while Zebre used to be an Italian invitational team (like the Barbarians). More info on the Italian rugby structure and talent flow can be found in this other article we wrote (dated 2022). The final between Petrarca Padova and Rugby Rovigo has been the third in a row between these two clubs. They are historical fierce rivals: Padova and Rovigo are two cities in Veneto, the rugby region par excellence in Italy, and together with Treviso they form a triangle of rugby that has animated rivalries and propelled competition forward for decades in the North-East of Italy. With one win each, this was seen by many as the last one that would set the score straight once and for all. Rugby Rovigo has won the game with a score of 16-9 and has been proclaimed Italian champion for the second time in three years (and 14 times overall). Currently, both Petrarca and Rovigo hold 14 titles, one less than Benetton Rugby and four less than Amatori Milano, which however hasn’t been involved in high level rugby for a long time. Some important decisions await the president this summer, with the next year (2024) being the one in which the agreement with the Six Nations board will be renewed. What part of the budget to spend in the domestic league? How many millions do the two URC pro sides really need? Is there the risk of a yearly Six Nations play-in with Georgia? How can we ensure that the flow of new talent is steady and not subpar when compared to the other Tier 1 unions? All these are questions that president Innocenti is surely thinking about every day, but can’t be solved with a magic wand.

“Milan Rugby” in the 1990s, heir to the Amatori Milano legacy. Source: Rangechange.ca

The “derby d’Italia”

The past three editions of the domestic tournament have seen Petrarca Padova and Rugby Rovigo face each other in the final. In the 2020/21 season Rovigo won the game 20-23 with a try scored in the extra-time. In the 2021/22 season, instead, Petrarca won the game 19-6 displaying great strength in adversity. This year, finally, Rovigo won it again with a score of 16-9 giving it all on the field in the last 20 minutes, when the legs of the players started to give in. Each of these games has been a show, both in and out the field. While the objective level of rugby displayed by the two teams could not (obviously) match a final of any of the top European leagues, the two opponents never fail to impress. The return of the Rovigo bus in the city was welcomed by a cheering crowd late at night. The intensity of the game and of the impacts was brutal, and of course, the fierce rivalry could be percieved through and through. The supporters from both sides coloured the stadium black/white and red/blue, showing just how much passion for the oval ball there is in their cities. Some foreign players have starred, such as tongan international James Faiva or Argentina international Lautaro Bazan Velez. The Scottish fullback Cameron Scott Lyle took great care of Petrarca’s kicking game whenever Faiva couldn’t find options, while the South African ex-Stormers fly-half Abner Van Reenen gave everything he had (including an arm) to Rovigo’s cause. When interviewed on the sideline, ex-Italian international Tito Tebaldi (now Petrarca’s scrum half) said “it’s the Top10 final, it’s the Italian derby, and we’re properly bashing each other. What else do you want?”. The stadium was nearly sold-out, on a Sunday night in a neutral ground, meaning that supporters of both sides had to drive home for about two hours after the game ended at 23:00 (and after legitimate celebrations). TV audience data came in Monday morning reporting more than 400,000 spectators accounting for more than 2% of the TV share for Sunday night. While these numbers would make the Premiership fold on itself for good, these are legit numbers for the Italian domestic tournament, onto which FIR must build.

Rovigo supporters. Source: il Gazzettino

A tournament in recesssion

Ever since Benetton has joined the Celtic League (now URC), the Italian domestic championship has lost one of its key teams. Together with it, to ensure that the two teams participating in the URC have sufficient fundings to compete, since 2010 the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) has invested a large fraction of its budget in them (today: ~5 M € per team). While this was the right thing to do to match the speed at which rugby was growing, and ensure to have at least two teams that play with the big guys week-in week-out, this has had the effect of depleting the domestic championship of most of its resources. In the past 13 years this championship has progressively lost its grip onto top level rugby, and has regressed in terms of rugby quality due to a lack of financial power, failing to attract foreign talent and coaches. Together with it, some clubs failed to shift mentality and adapt to professional rugby and sometimes even explicitly refused to do so. This lack of resources and forward-thinking has not helped the Top10 case. Nowadays, it is comparable to a low ProD2 / high Nationale (2nd and 3rd divisions in France) in terms of quality of rugby, and even in that case, the club structure is hardly as rooted and deep as it is for some French third division clubs. The current federal president Marzio Innocenti has won the federal elections in 2021 under the push of the domestic clubs which wanted more resources to operate, possibly taking away something from the two URC professional sides. In addition, his electoral result has been strongly swinged by the support from Petrarca Padova, which had been considered by Innocenti as a possible new home for Zebre. However, two years in and nothing of relevance has been achieved in that direction except for a player academy reform that came not without skepticism (and may be reverted, some say). Not for a lack of trying: president Innocenti has named a few key roles in the Federation to ensure that clubs were brought back in the loop from the main door. Moreover, FIR has achieved to broadcast a Top10 game per week on national television and this year’s final has been broadcast at 9 pm on a Sunday night in the National second channel (Rai 2): a success for Italian rugby. It does, however, feel like clubs hoped for more.

Marzio Innocenti. Source: OnRugby

There used to be champions

David Campese played for Petrarca from 1984 to 1988, then moved to Amatori Milano from 1988 to 1993. John Kirwan wore Treviso’s colors between 1985 and 1989, winning the first-ever world cup in those years together with Craig Green, also playing in Treviso (1987-1991). Naas Botha, 28 times Springboks-capped, has played in Rovigo between 1987 and 1993. Michael Lynagh played in Treviso between 1991 and 1996, and in a derby against Rovigo, signed what is considered by many one of the most beautiful tries that the game of rugby has ever seen (see here). These are just some of the names that populated the Italian top league (Eccellenza, then Super 10, then Top12, now Top10) over the 80s and 90s. It used to be an attractive rugby championship, especially for overseas players from the Southern hemisphere who would come to Italy, earn good money and absolutely wreak havoc every Sunday. We can broadly think of it as the modern-day ProD2, where clubs have lots of supporters, good financial capabilities and the overall rugby level is quite good. Those twenty years (1980-2000) have pushed Italian rugby towards the Six Nations inclusion (which happened in 2000) and raised the bar substantially for our domestic rugby movement. However, with the game gone pro (1995), the strongest Italian clubs could not match the financial capabilities of clubs from England or France, which currently host the two most richest and important rugby championships of the world (Premiership and Top14). To match that at least in part, the decision to join the Celtic League with two professional sides was taken ten years after joining the Six Nations (in 2010). Nowadays, all the international athletes (both Italian and not) that play within the Italian territory are based in either Treviso or Parma, leaving the Top10 sides with only three categories of players to pick from: 1) new, fresh talent that must be tested at high level, 2) foreign players in search of a spotlight, and 3) international old glories which still have some good years to give. One of the big discussions in Italy is, in fact, whether the Top10 should be a fully-developmental league aimed at developing young players and not a surviving, yet nearly dying old glory. There is no agreement in this matter between all the parts involved, so the situation stays idle, moving one step closer to implosion.

John Kirwan. Source: Herald Sun

Can we afford to have a strong domestic league?

The quick answer is “no”. But this is true now and today, it wasn’t true in the past and it does not have to be true in the future. What Italy needs to stay competitive on the international level is to have its own best players playing in very competitive contexts. Right now, in Europe these are the URC, the Premiership, or the Top14 (perhaps the top tier of the ProD2). We can say all we want but at the end of the day, it’s all about the “benjamins”: basically every ProD2 club (not even Top14) have a higher budget than Zebre. Benetton Rugby, whose budget floats around 12 M €, wouldn’t even match the top two ProD2 clubs by budget (Grenoble e Agen, ~13 M €). And this is possible largely due to the 5M € check that FIR passes to its two professional sides, as without it, Zebre would have around 1 M € from extra sponsorships and Benetton would have 6-7 M €. If we were to take these 10 M € away from them, bring the two of them back to Top10, and sum these 10 M € with the current cost of the Top10 (~2.5 M €, according to La Tribuna), we would pile up 12.5 M € to be divided among 10 teams. One could think to give 1 M € to each Top10 club, and save 2.5 M € for grassroots rugby. Would having ten sides with 1 M € from FIR to spend really propel Italian rugby forward? Unlikely: Benetton, Petrarca and Rovigo would be able to scrap 5-6 M € budgets from local investors and benefactors, and the other teams would be unable to even reach 2 M €. The net result would be losing the two sides that have access to elite rugby games, and not being able to replace them with a domestic alternative of the same value. In a few years, this would mean see all our national players playing abroad and our league being stuck as it is today, minus the two pro sides. Of course, having a strong domestic tournament and not having to rely on the URC would be the ultimate goal for a movement such as the Italian one, but we simply cannot afford it as of today. Were new investors to come into play, this would of course change everything.

FC Grenoble Rugby13,480 M€
SU Agen13,079 M€
USON Nevers12,551 M€
RC Vannes12,052 M€
Provence Rugby11,599 M€
Oyonnax Rugby11,223 M€
US Montalbanaise10,761 M€
Biarritz Olympique10,202 M€
US Colomiers8,559 M€
AS Béziers Hérault8,094 M€
Mont de Marsans7,777 M€
Rouen Normandie Rugby7,386 M€
Soyaux Angoulême XV6,676 M€
Stade Aurillacois5,964 M€
US Carcassonne5,952 M€
RC Massy Essone4,711 M€

The budget of ProD2 clubs in August 2022, interleaved with the ones of Benetton and Zebre. Source: DNACG pour Sportune

The future of Top10

This summer will be one of the most decisive summers of the Italian domestic tournament. One of the most winning clubs of recent years (Calvisano) has folded and will begin its way up from the lower tiers. The president stated the intention to bring the league to 8 clubs within two years, to have more fundings per club. The next year will be a transition year. The structure is likely to feature 9 clubs (1 resting club per week), with two relegations at the end. There is no rumour on the future league’s name, which of course will not be “Top10”, but the official FIR documents that were passed to clubs in the past weeks named it “Eccellenza maschile” (the old name). The president has stated the intention of including the domestic top league in the elite pathway, which means that players belong to the 18-22 age range must find gametime there. This has to be concerted with the clubs, and regulated so that neither the clubs nor the players are affected by the new rules. A very likely scenario is to connect elite formation centers with the two professional clubs, which have their own academies as of 2022, and force professional sides to give their youngsters on load to Top10 sides to grow. Considering that Top10 sides also have their own academies, this won’t be easy. Moreover, for the second year in a row, the U19 tournament has been won by Colorno, an emerging club just a handful of kilometers outside Parma (i.e. from Zebre). Colorno also imposed itself in the Top10, reaching the playoff stage for the first time. A new balance must be found to include the Top10 within the player development process but without draining it of its resources and identity. It’s definitely a challenge, and we hope that the president is up for the task.