During a 15-year international career, Zanni starred for the Azzurri in four Rugby World Cups and 13 Six Nations campaigns, as well as pulling on the famous Barbarians shirt.
The flanker finished up with 119 caps for his country, a tally second only to long-time team-mate and friend Sergio Parisse.
Zanni’s career was characterised by outstanding dedication and tenacity, attributes he will now look to pass on in his new role as a fitness coach at Benetton Treviso, the club he has been with since 2009.
Born in Udine in the north-east of Italy, Zanni’s rugby adventure began with his hometown club.
He quickly rose through the ranks before joining Calvisano aged 20, a move that paved the way to his Italy debut, a 48-0 victory over Tonga in November 2005.
“It was amazing to be selected,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect it, because at the time there were a lot of strong players in front of me who had more experience.”
“I didn’t sleep the night before,” he adds. “It was incredible, because I played with players I watched on television one year before”.
HIGHS AND LOWS
Zanni soon became a mainstay in the Italy squad, though, earning a call-up for the 2006 Six Nations before travelling to his first Rugby World Cup the following year.
But his first experience of international rugby’s biggest tournament brought mixed emotions, as the pride at making his Rugby World Cup debut against New Zealand was followed by the heartbreak of a hamstring injury.
“It was difficult to have to finish the competition and come back to Italy,” Zanni says.
“It was also difficult to see the team lose against Scotland [18-16 in the final pool match]. We lost by one kick and it was tough, because we trained hard all summer and came very close to our objective. But the hardest thing was that I couldn’t help my team-mates.”
A MEMORABLE 2013
Better times would come. Zanni highlights Italy’s historic 22-21 win over France in 2011, their first ever Six Nations victory over Les Bleus, as a particularly fond career memory.
“It was unexpected that we won, it was incredible,” he says. “I remember that in the old stadium, the Flaminio, everyone was crying.”
Two years later the forward hit his peak, earning a Six Nations player of the tournament nomination after inspiring the Azzurri to wins over France and Ireland, before being called up for the Barbarians’ clash with England at Twickenham.
“The Barbarians selected the players who had played at their best in the season, and I think it was maybe the best year for me,” he says.
“I was selected in the MVP for the Six Nations, I did well with Treviso and had no injuries.”
NEVER GIVE UP
The flanker featured in three more Rugby World Cups after 2007, joining an exclusive group of players to have starred in four tournaments.
But injury problems plagued the latter stages of his career, to the extent that his mere involvement in Japan last year was a remarkable achievement.
Zanni ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament three times, twice in the left knee and once in the right, but reinvented himself as a second row before working his way back to the top.
“After the second injury on my left knee, I had some doubts about continuing my career,” he says. “I didn’t know at the time if I could come back and play at a high level.”
“At the time I was 33 years old and I was a player with experience,” he continues. “I understood how to change my game and how to manage myself to play in that role.”
A DREAM REALISED
Zanni admits that he never imagined when starting out that he would go on to enjoy such a glittering playing career.
It took him 15 years to accumulate 119 caps, but the significance of each one has never been lost on the 36-year-old.
“It’s the dream of every young player to grow up and wear the Italian jersey,” he says.
“I was able to realise that dream. From the first match to the 100th, when you’re defending the jersey of your nation, they’re all a source of pride, but also a responsibility. The emotions are high in every moment.”