What’s behind the Italian club picking off Premiership talent

What's behind the Italian club picking off English talent
Benetton's growth is one of the reasons for optimism within Italian rugby - Alessandro Levati/Getty Images

There was a time in the not too distant past where the two Italian franchises, Benetton and Zebre, were considered the whipping boys of what is now known as the United Rugby Championship. Since 2010, excluding the Covid-enforced Rainbow Cup, the former have only qualified for a play-off match once. The latter cannot even boast of that. The pressure was piling onto the national side for their inability to win a solitary Six Nations match, and la dolce vita suddenly did not look so sweet for Italian rugby. Faith and belief in their project was wavering. It looked a little bleak.

Victory in the 2021 Pro14 Rainbow Cup final against the Bulls, at the dawn of the URC, raised hopes of a revival which was boosted by some enthralling displays by the national team in both the 2022 and 2023 Six Nations. But a catastrophic World Cup and persistent URC mediocrity kept the prosecco on ice, with the days of a full-scale Italian rugby explosion still nothing more than a pipedream.

Now, however, the tide could be turning. Zebre might continue to flounder and Italy might be winless in their opening two Six Nations matches, with a daunting journey to Lille on Sunday to face the pre-tournament favourite of many in France, but, elsewhere, there are reasons for optimism within Italian rugby. The country’s under-20s travel to France on the back of a one-point loss in Cork in round two of their own Six Nations – in a match they should have won – while Benetton have lost the joint-fewest matches of any side in this year’s URC (two, tied with Leinster). Until defeat to the Irish province last Saturday, the Italian franchise occupied second place in the league table. And then there is recruitment.

Benetton’s squad is enormous – but it has to be. For last weekend’s loss to Leinster, the province were missing over 20 players owing to international commitments. Marco Bortolami, the former Gloucester and Italy captain who is head coach of Benetton, tells Telegraph Sport that the franchise have 65 players on their books – 10 of whom are academy players. That is 55 senior players. Where once the bulk of those might have been journeymen or players who were not offered contracts in the more lucrative Premiership or Top 14, Benetton Rugby are beginning to attract star talent and, with the backing of the global clothing group of the same name, they can afford to.

Thomas Gallo, the Argentina loosehead, and Malakai Fekitoa, the Tonga centre who was once an All Black, both call north-east Italy home, but there is also a litany of ex-Premiership talent alongside Fekitoa. Paolo Odogwu, Marcus Watson, Jacob Umaga and Andy Uren are now honorary Venetians. The former has been capped by Italy while Harlequins’ Louis Lynagh and Bath’s Matt Gallagher will join them next season. The fact the incoming duo also qualify for Italy is no coincidence, either.

What’s behind the Italian club picking off English talent
Jacob Umaga (left) is one of several honorary Venetians - Harry Murphy/Getty Images

“It’s part of the mission of Benetton and the Italian Federation,” Bortolami tells Telegraph Sport. “We have a gentlemen’s agreement which limits the amount of foreign players that we can have in our matchday squad every week – because we need to develop Italian players. It’s not a rule, just a gentlemen’s agreement, but we understand its importance; we’re all on the same page.

“At the start, we had to recruit as many players as possible but our objective for the past two years has been to improve the quality of our players little by little. Having foreign players who can fill the gap when the Italy internationals are away is critical. What has changed is that our performances have improved and we’re able to attract better players. Obviously, the Premiership struggled a bit financially and we were able to attract players like Jacob and Paolo.

“We are an Italian team; we need to keep building our identity. So, having those Italian-qualified players can help a lot in terms of the bigger picture. Not only for Benetton, but for the Italian team, too. We want to be successful but the Italian team has to be successful, too.

“We have complete freedom to recruit who we like, whether they’re foreign or Italian, although we have to keep our role in the bigger system in mind. Having quality foreign players is very important as you need the highest standards. That’s our aim. What makes Benetton successful will make the Italian team successful down the line.”

But why now? According to Antonio Pavanello, the director of rugby who also heads up recruitment – and a former lock partner of Bortolami with Italy – it is hard work behind the scenes which has led to increased revenues, with the club expecting one of their best average attendances of the professional era this season.

“Our income is increasing season on season: ticketing, sponsors, food and beverage, merchandising,” says Pavanello. “It’s a long project and every season we’re trying to increase our income. That is all increasing our player budget. Where once we could not sign a player like Fekitoa, now we can.

“We have only had one match this season where we have not sold out. Glasgow next week looks like another sell-out, too. We’re working really hard to get people into the stadium. We have never had this number. In 2010, the first season in the Magners League – as it was then – we never had these numbers. We had a sell-out, yes, but we had some matches with low numbers.

“People think it’s only because we’ve been winning. Not true. Of course it helps but there has been a lot of work done by people at the club. Creating events in the community, improving the fan experience at the stadium; the atmosphere is better. For many years, clubs came to do business in Italy; but with this added revenue it’s time for us to do some abroad. Not just the Premiership clubs, but there are good players in other leagues who we want to recruit, too.”

Where Benetton are concerned, watch this space; it seems there is more to come.

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