The weekend of 22 February, 2020, won’t be remembered fondly by Italy fans.
It began with a 17-0 home defeat to Scotland for the men’s team. A day later, the women’s side had their clash with the Scots called off by Italian authorities as cases of COVID-19 rose in the Milan area, where the game was set to take place.
Within days all sporting fixtures were scrapped and a nationwide lockdown was imposed. Italy ground to a halt.
Seven months on, the country is back to something resembling normality. Life is returning to the streets, sport is restarting and soon, international rugby will follow.
A new tournament on the horizon and another with a place still to be booked
A challenging but exciting period awaits. The Azzurri will complete their Six Nations campaign in October with games against Ireland and England, before beginning the new Autumn Nations Cup, where they face Scotland, Fiji and France.
The women’s team still have three Six Nations games to come before their crucial Rugby World Cup 2021 qualifiers in December.
It’s a packed schedule, and one that comes on the back of a long period of inactivity for most players.
“The biggest thing is the rhythm,” explained Italy and Benetton back-rower Braam Steyn. “Getting back to that intensity of taking hits, giving hits and doing it at high velocity and with an intense rhythm. That’s the most difficult part.”
The 39-time Italy international, who started at number eight in February’s defeat to Scotland, is determined to find a silver lining from the unsettling events of the year so far.
“The rest has been good for a lot of players, especially your front-rowers,” Steyn said.
“Those guys have a lot going on with backs, knees, neck, all kinds of things. So this time off was good for them, to get a decent rest.
“We have long seasons; we go straight from the Pro14 and European cups into international duties. There’s never really time to rest.”
Italy Women flanker Giada Franco hasn’t played a game of rugby since a Six Nations defeat to France on 8 February.
She departed Harlequins in the summer to re-join Colorno and has just one competitive game lined up before facing the physical onslaught of test rugby once more, with a trip to Dublin at the end of October.
But the 24-year-old is relishing the prospect of being thrown back in at the deep end after so long off the pitch.
“It was very frustrating in the first few months without playing any rugby,” said Franco.
“It’s obviously going to be tough, but at the same time these huge months off just increased our desire to be together, stay fit and play an international game.
“It won’t be easy, and you’ll be a bit nervous about your condition, but the desire to play and rediscover the team that you left months ago is going to be key for us to perform in the best way we can.”
An injection of youth in camp
Both teams, men’s and women’s, still harbour important ambitions for 2020.
For Steyn and his team-mates, ending their winless Six Nations run with a victory over title hopefuls Ireland or England would send shockwaves through the rugby world, while there will be further opportunities for victory in the Autumn Nations Cup.
But head coach Franco Smith is looking to the future as well as the present; the South African called up 11 players aged 23 or younger for September’s training camp in Parma.
Here are the full fixtures below featuring:— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) September 10, 2020
Who's excited to have international rugby back? pic.twitter.com/LwnEPP0MIk
And Steyn is convinced that the packed fixture schedule ahead can help a young and vibrant Azzurri squad fulfil their burgeoning potential.
“It’s really exciting, it’s almost like another World Cup,” he said.
“It gives us time to grow as a team together, we’ll stay for a long period of time together and get to know each other, seeing as we have a young squad, and try to build something greater than what we’ve had in the past.
“This is the ideal moment for Italian rugby to grow. All the young talent that’s coming through is ready for that.
“These boys have an incredible talent and they really want to work hard. That makes me excited and puts us older players on our toes because we’ve got more competition, so have to lift our standards.”
Steyn, however, is more than aware that success won’t come easy and warned that the new-look Azzurri will ultimately be judged on points, not potential.
“Talk is cheap,” said the 28-year-old.
“All these things are great, but we have to actually go on the pitch and perform and bring some results back home. That’s what we need to make Italian rugby grow and be more successful.”
He added: “There’s quite a gap between us and other teams, and the coaches are really working hard to give us everything we need to close that gap.”
Playing for a place in New Zealand
The situation is somewhat different for Franco and her Azzurre team-mates.
Just last year they celebrated their best-ever Six Nations campaign, winning three games, including a stunning 31-12 victory over France, to finish as runners-up behind England.
Franco was named player of the match in an opening day win away to Wales this year, but the Italians then failed to repeat the heroics of 2019 when they lost to France.
Italy can still equal or better the feat of the previous year in their remaining three matches, but Franco revealed that no specific objective has been set.
“We never spoke about finishing first, second or third,” she said.
“We spoke about growing up during the tournament, doing the best we can in every game and trying to build from every game. That was the kind of conversation we had months ago, and that we’re having now in the camp.”
Franco also admitted that it’s hard not to look ahead to December’s decisive Rugby World Cup qualifying matches.
The Azzurre will face Ireland, Scotland and the winner of the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship in a round-robin tournament over three weekends at the end of the year.
The winner will book their place at Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand, while the runner-up will be awarded one last chance in a four-team final qualification tournament.
Importantly, Italy’s final Six Nations game against Scotland on 5 December will double as the first match of their Rugby World Cup qualifying mini-tournament.
“Playing the Six Nations in October will be a bit weird, but with the World Cup qualifiers coming in December we can really use these games as preparation,” Franco said.
“The main focus will be on the World Cup qualifiers, because there’s one place for four nations.
“As a team we’ve worked hard for a couple of years to be prepared for that. We really want to go”.