Italy will participate in the Rugby League World Cup for the second time in history after securing the final spot in the European Qualifiers.
2017 will mark the second time that the Italian Azzurri side has qualified for the Rugby League World Cup. Whilst considered a relative newcomer in the Rugby League, the nation of Italy has had connections to the code since the 1930’s.
Interest in sport of Rugby League in Italy first started in the mid-1930’s, following the sudden expansion of the sport in France.At the time local Rugby Union player, Vincenzo Bertolotto, connected with Jean Galia in France to attempt to play an exhibition match in Rome, however unfortunately the match never went ahead, and it would take until 1950 for the Italians to officially take up the sport.
The first game was an exhibition event played in Turin, with two French teams taking on a local Italian team featuring none other than Vincenzo Bertolotto. Drawing over 4,000 locals, the event was deemed a success and helped fund a tour by the Italian XIII to England and Wales later that year.
Whilst the Italians lost all six matches on the tour, the tour raised enough interest and funds to see a Torino based team enter the French Rugby League competitions for the 1950/51 season.
Italy would play their first ‘official’ international in 1951, taking on the French national team in Cahors. The Italian Federation of Amateur Rugby 13 (FIAR13) was formed in 1958 and Rugby League was played in the region until the early 1970’s when the sport ceased to exist following the Italian Government’s refusal to recognise the sport (preventing the players and clubs from being able to get insurance).
Rugby League would return to Italy in the mid-1990’s when Domenic Pezzano and John Benigni setup the Italian Rugby League A XIII (IRLAXIII). The IRLAXIII took part in a series of international tournaments including the World Sevens and Super League World Nines, before attempting to qualify for the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
Italy would continue to play regular internationals throughout Europe in the early 2000’s, however the domestic scene was relatively unorganised until the Federazione Italiana Rugby League (FIRL) took over as the governing body in the region in 2006.
From 2006, concerted efforts were made to re-establish local competitions in the region, whilst the national team also took advantage of the strong number of Italian eligible players in both the NRL and Super League to qualify for the 2013 and 2017 World Cups.
The Federazione Italiana Rugby League (FIRL)’s premier competition is the Italian Serie A, which features eight teams from across the country.
In 2016, XIII del Ducato defeated Spartans Catania 38 – 18 in the Serie A final whilst in addition to the national domestic competition, the Saluzzo Roosters (North West Italy) have recently entered the French Rugby League’s fourth division – DN2 PACA and are currently taking part in the 2016/17 season.
National Team Stats
- Moniker: Azzurri
- Colours: Blue and White
- Coach: Cameron Ciraldo
- First Test: Italy 17 l. France 29 – Cahors, France 1951
- Best World Cup Result: Group Stages (2013)
Vincenzo Bertolotto: Depsite making his Rugby League debut at age 38, Bertolotto captained and represented the Azzurri from 1950 until 1954. Bertolotto was a leading force in helping coordinate the inaugural exhibition tournament in 1950 in Turin before captaining the Italians on their 1950 and 1954 tours of England and Wales.
Anthony Minichiello: The former Italian captain, few players have played more tests in the blue of the Azzurri than Anthony Minichiello. Making his international debut for Italy back in the 1999 World Cup Qualifiers, Minichiello played seven Tests for the Italians, including captaining the side to their first ever World Cup in 2013. Minichiello had a distinguished career in the NRL, which also saw him play over 300 games for the Sydney Roosters, 11 Origin matches for the NSW Blues and another 19 Tests for Australia.
Ones to Watch
Heading into the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, lets look at some of the players who will be integral to the success of the Azzurri in the upcoming tournament.
Terry Campese: Former Canberra Raiders and Hull KR half, Terry Campese, played a pivotal role in the Azzurri qualifying for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup after impressive performances against Serbia and Russia. Returning to Australia in 2017, Campese is almost certain to feature in the Azzurri squad and will provide some much needed direction around the halves.
James Tedesco: Tedesco was only 20 when he made his international debut for the Azzurri in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, and whilst in that tournament he was pushed into the centres by captain Anthony Minichiello, Tedesco is almost guaranteed to be starting fullback for the Italians in the 2017 event.
Paul Vaughan: The former Canberra Raiders forward will bring some much welcomed grunt to the Italian forward pack, with the prop forward certain to build on his impressive performances for the Italians in 2013.
Joel Riethmuller: Seven Test veteran for the Azzuri, Joel Riethmuller will not only bring a wealth of experience to the Italians at World Cup 2017, but the former North Queensland Cowboy and current Northern Pride player will bring some much welcomed knowledge and experience relating to Barlow Park and Townsville Stadium to the squad.
World Cup Group Stages
Despite a long history in international Rugby League, the Azzurri will face three relatively unknown opponents when they make their way to Australia for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Out of the three opponents they’ve drawn, Fiji, Ireland and the United States of America, only the Azzurri and the USA Hawks have ever met before, with the last encounter between the two nations being at the 2000 Emerging Nations World Cup in England. On that day, the Azzurri ran out 40 – 16 victors over the USA team at The Shay in Halifax.
With each of their opponents set to boast plenty of NRL and Super League experience, the Italians will have a difficult task ahead of them if they are to progress from the World Cup group stages for the first time.
Written by Steve Birchall, RLWC2017 Contributor