Rome is home to some of Europe’s most famous historical monuments, the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Trevi Fountain, but in a city where football rules all, rugby is steadily starting to grow.
There are currently two professional rugby teams in the Italian capital, S.S. Lazio Rugby, who are tied to the city’s famous football club of the same name, and their neighbouring Fiamme Oro Rugby, who are just a 25-minute drive away on the same side of the city.
Both clubs are situated on the city’s north side, just south of the River Tiber, the third-longest river in Italy, but both clubs are also part of a small minority in Italian Rugby, which is that they are rugby clubs based in the country’s south.
“In Italy, rugby is the tenth sport,” says Treviso fly-half Ian McKinley.
“Soccer rules everything over there but rugby certainly has a culture. Treviso has the biggest rugby culture in Italy and it’s a respected rugby culture within Europe, but it’s a different atmosphere.”
The atmosphere that McKinley describes is a unique climate that incorporates players, fans, clubs and the Italian Rugby Federation, the FIR. The quartet form the four pillars of Italian Rugby and they are all interdependent on each other.
The clubs depend on the fans, the players depend on the clubs, and they all depend on the federation and its president, Alfredo Gavazzi.
The 66-year-old was one of the founding fathers of Calvisano, one of the biggest sides in Italian rugby and a club that has produced esteemed Italian internationals such as Martin Castrogiovanni, Salvatore Perugini and Alessandro Zanni.
Gavazzi played thirteen years for Calvisano throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, but since he was elected as the president of the FIR in 2012, one of his biggest objectives has been to bring rugby to the south, and in particular, to Rome.
The capital hosts the vast majority of Italy’s home internationals, and also all of its Six Nations games, but it’s a city that has yet to fully embrace rugby as a sport, even if it’s beloved by Romans as a spectacle.
“The atmosphere is second to none but you do wonder where all these people come from,” said Troy Nathan of Italian internationals at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
“There is a lot of locals that would go to the games, but to be honest, I don’t know if they know the game really well.
“They’d be there more for the socialising and just because it’s a main event, that would be the main difference, but the stadium is always full and people are having fun. They love the atmosphere there.”
Nathan knows the struggles of Italian rugby well but he also knows its potential, and how it compares to other rugby cultures in Europe and around the world.
The Aucklander has played provincial rugby with Counties Manakau in New Zealand, he’s played with Connacht, Glasgow and Zebre in the Pro 12, and he’s also spent some time in the Italian domestic championship, the National Championship of Excellence, with Mogliano and Lazio.
He thinks a Pro 12 team in Rome could work, and that it would be a desirable destination for players, but he also knows that any Italian team has its limitations, and that in order for Italian Rugby to really progress and grow, changes need to be made internally and from the top down.
“That rumour has been going around Italian rugby for four years now but I think it would be a really great idea,” said Nathan of a Pro 12 team based in Rome.
“A lot of top players would like to go to Rome for a few years, to live there and to play rugby, because it’s a class city, but to be honest, I think it would also be a great idea for the Federation, and for Italian rugby, because you’re going to get crowds as well.
“People are always out there looking for rugby games, but they’re more likely to go to a Pro 12 game than a local league game.
“If you look at internationals they always fill those games, but it goes back to who is more professional and organised really.
“I think it starts with the top at the president, especially here in Italy, but the difference between Ireland, Scotland and Italy is big, just in terms of their professionalism.
“How they look at the club, how they set the club up, what the players play for. In New Zealand that’s one thing they drive on, a club’s standards.
“In Scotland, Glasgow had good facilities, they had a well-driven vision of what they wanted to achieve, but when you come out to Italy it’s different.
“If the top dogs have the structure right, it trickles down to the players.”
Nathan says that the decision makers at the FIR have a mentality of looking at things internally, making decisions on what has worked for them in the past, as opposed to what has worked for others.
That mentality, like Nathan highlights, has also been embedded within the psyche of the local players, with many adopting a ‘what works for them’ approach as opposed to ‘what has worked for others’.
“The culture is a lot different here. In other countries you’ll have a three-strike rule, and if you break that, you’re gone, your contract’s torn up.
“But because of the player differences here, if a guy turned up late for training he wouldn’t get stung for it.
“I spoke to members of the Italian coaching team a few weeks ago and I asked them ‘what would you change here?’
“And they said they introduced the three-strike rule, where if you stuff up three times you’re gone.
“They said that if you stuff up three times, you won’t play for Italy again. They said it’s tightened a lot of things up at training as far as time management and just the general attitude at training.
“They said that notched it up a couple of steps so it’s just little things like that. It’s a case where they’re playing for their country, and that three-strike rule is going to be huge, where if you take it down to my level, it wouldn’t really work.”
It’s a notable point raised by Nathan, threatening a player’s international career can also threaten his club prospects, but threatening an Italian player’s place at his club due to tardiness could put him off the club, or even worse, the sport entirely.
The three-strike rule could really thrive at a club like Saracens in a league like the Premiership, but what about at a club like Treviso or Zebre, who are consistently loitering around the bottom of the Pro 12, desperate to cling onto whatever talent they’re able to keep.
The Italian club rugby situation is a complex animal that seems to extend far beyond just a lack of on-field competitiveness and star talent.
A Pro 12 club in Rome could potentially attract some of the world’s best players in one of Europe’s largest cities, but wherever the FIR bases its professional teams, it needs to address its key issues, and those problems can’t be solved solely by an astute thinker from Limerick, he needs much more help in tackling a problem that has plagued so many great coaches before him. A problem of culture and not location.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
Troy Nathan was speaking on behalf of Haka Rugby Global, a New Zealand-founded company that delivers Māori influenced rugby camps around mainland Europe. To find out more about Haka Rugby Global click here.