Italian bet on youth

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Milan (AFP) – Aside from new stars Paolo Garbisi (21) or Ange Capuozzo (22), Italian rugby is counting on its youth to prove that Nacionale, who won, to everyone’s surprise in Wales, deserves their place in the Six Nations Tournament.

The day after the historic Cardiff Millennium win (22-21), the first for the Transalpines since February 2015, the under-20s confirmed passing four tries to the young Welshman (27-20) in their third edition victory 2022.

At the moment, the Italian Under 20s have never competed higher than 4th in an age category tournament, but unlike their A counterparts, they have not won the Wooden Spoon since 2017 and finished the 2022 tournament with a positive record (3 wins, 2 defeats) for the first time in their history.

U18 also have a number of victories over the leaders of the northern hemisphere.

The turnaround has been achieved thanks to the work of the Italian Rugby Federation, with some 120 of Italy’s best U18 and U19 players training at one of the four FIR-managed national centers in Milan, Rome, Treviso and Prato.

In Milan, the center is located in Istituto Leone XIII, a private school located on the edge of an affluent urban, business, residential and commercial area northwest of the city’s historic centre.

36 consecutive losses

Up-and-coming rugby players stay there Monday through Thursday, heading to school in the morning, locally or in the Lombardy metropolitan area, before returning to practice in the afternoon.

The Italy Under-19 team gathers at one of the Federation's four training centers (FIR) in Milan on March 22, 2022.
The Italy Under-19 team gathers at one of the Federation’s four training centers (FIR) in Milan on March 22, 2022. MIGUEL MEDINA AFP/Archive

“We need to find a way to help our boys learn, exercise, eat, sleep and spend time in the community in the most economically sustainable way,” said Daniele Pacini, director of technical FIR.

These centers, established in 2016, cost about 400,000 euros per year each. The one in Rome is located in the heart of the Olympic complex and has unique sports facilities, but no school.

“Here (in Milan, editor’s note) we have a good system because they sleep in a safe place, the field is here, some of them go to school here too,” continues Pacini, a former under-21 international whose career was cut short from -for injury.

From September, Italian rugby will be reduced from four centers to two in Milan and Rome. However, two new centers will be added to the Italian franchises: Benetton in Treviso and Zebre in Parma.

“This is a professional environment where there are professional players, the matches of the United Rugby Championship (the championship of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, South African and Italian provinces and teams, approx. complete their development,” explains Pacini.

Technical Director of the Italian Rugby Federation Daniele Pacini at the Milan training center on March 22, 2022.
Technical Director of the Italian Rugby Federation Daniele Pacini at the Milan training center on March 22, 2022. MIGUEL MEDINA AFP/Archive

95% of the budget thanks to the Tournament

FIR, which has an annual budget of around 45 million euros, is trying to prepare for the future of its choice, wanting to expand its player base.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, 70,000 rugby players were registered in Italy, compared to 90,000 between 2013 and 2016. In March 2020, approximately 17,000 players were between the ages of 13 and 17. This is not much compared to 600,000 English people.

“In addition to having fewer players, Scotland, which has the closest numbers to us, also has a federation with an additional 12 million euros. Let’s not even talk about England or France…” Pacini explains again.

The Italian U19 team during a training session at one of the four Federation Centers in Milan, March 22, 2022.
The Italian U19 team during a training session at one of the four Federation Centers in Milan, March 22, 2022. MIGUEL MEDINA AFP/Archive

The Italian strategy aims to expand the base by expanding the top of the pyramid.

“We have a point that must be at the same height as the other teams, otherwise we will have to leave the Six Nations,” Pacini admitted.

And leaving the tournament would be a disaster: 95% of the FIR budget comes from competitions, of which about 40% goes to grassroots and youth development.

“It will take 20 years to triple the 25,000 children we had before the pandemic if we do it right. But in the meantime, the national team cannot continue to lose for another seven years.”