Thanks to the growth of the women’s game and the exposure gained by the Italian rugby league authorities at the 2017 World Cup, a bright future lies ahead of the Azzurre, the Italy Women’s National Team.
“It all starts from grassroots, mate” Craig Salvadori told me, Queensland based former rugby league professional player and coach. A City Origin and New South Wales representative, he played twice for Australia but stayed in touch with his family’s Italian roots.
Italy National Team head coach in 1999, he has never lost sight of the Italian-Australian connection and in 2017 visited the Azzurri in Cairns, in the days of their fixture against Ireland in Barlow Park, Cairns (North Queensland).
It was a hot day and world-class superstars such as Mark Minichiello, James Tedesco, Paul Vaughan, Daniel Alvaro and Nathan Brown were having their Captain’s run before taking on the Wolfhounds in a match played under high humidity conditions.
Grassroots is a word I heard many times during my Australian journey with Cameron Ciraldo’s team as Social Media Officer.
Cairns, Townsville and Canberra all meant meeting the grassroots game: working hard under the North Queensland sun, meeting Northern Pride supporters/RLWC volunteers, covering a joint training session with Wales at the Townsville & Districts Blackhawks Rugby League Football Club, chatting with Raiders and West Belconnen’s fans in Canberra. In QLD and NSW, rugby league is everything: it is footy and grassroots and professional game work and grow together.
When asked to write about the Azzurre, Salvadori’s words came to my mind. Orazio D’Arro, Federazione Italiana Rugby League (FIRL) president, was telling him about our efforts to grow rugby league back home, about local rugby union players who switch codes during the summer to enjoy the greatest game of all. And Craig insisted with this grassroots mantra.
It was impossible, due to bureaucratic and timing reasons, to send an Italian team to the 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup but it has become one of FIRL’s main aims, due to the lessons learned Down Under and the restless dedication shown by the girls in their first Test Matches (Beirut 2017, Toulon 2018). It is difficult to organize, due to geography of the country and the players’ busy personal and sporting schedule, a September to May Italian Club Championship but Tiziano Franchini (the womens’ head coach), Tino Magrì and their colleagues are doing their best to make the girls actually love the game. Have them used to the rules and gameplay of rugby league.
This is what I call grassroots and this is, somehow, what Josh Mantellato, Terry Campese and company all played for at the World Cup.
Now, the aftermath of the RLWC breathed new life into the Italian officials and they kept on with stages and camps from North to South of the country. The Italy women’s national team has given a lot of players a chance to shine at International level, while discovering a new sport. In most cases, they are non-professional rugby union players and manage to combine their effort in both codes, but several experienced, with rugby league, their first ever contact with the rugby ball.
In addition to this, we all know sports authorities in England and Australia are helping the women’s game with huge investments. World Cup videos and highlights prove rugby league can be spectacular and FIRL is working hard to provide a pathway to this level.
Some might say there is still a long way to go and the recent tour to France confirmed it is still difficult to beat opponents who play RL all year long, but “with a little more experience we could have won the game,” says Franchini, who has represented Italy in test football. “Losing is never fun but I am happy with how the girls played in Toulon. They put a lot of effort into the game, they are hardworking and very dedicated players. The future looks good. We have to keep working and need a long-term vision.”
This long-term vision cannot be separated from the grassroots, as new stages and special trainings are being scheduled. Anybody interested on women’s rugby league in the North of Italy cannot miss the stage being held in Stanghelle (Padua, Veneto) 9th and 10th June 2018, under the guidance of Rugby League European Federation Certified coaches. Furthermore, club fixtures in the summer should provide continuity to the projects that had been set up.
What every rugby league director, coach and referee had better remember is the link between the development of the sport and top-level. Who knows, following the example by homegrown International players Gioele Celerino (former Newcastle Thunder and Tully Tigers, now at Queanbeyan Blues, Canberra), Edoardo Pezzano, Simone Boscolo and Giovanni Ruscica (Tully, Queensland), some girls may move to Australia, England or France to improve their game and help raising the national team once back home.
The pathway to the Women’s World Cup is there and, as Salvadori said in a hot training day in North Queensland, it all starts from the grassroots.
 “Campese Hoping To Recruit World Cup Teammate”, Canberra Region Rugby League,