As he reflects on his 107-cap Italy test career, Leonardo Ghiraldini cites the 2013 win over Ireland – not the four Rugby World Cups he attended – as the highlight of his time in an Azzurri jersey.
Ghiraldini looks back with fondness on that Six Nations campaign, in which Italy won two games to finish fourth, but also with regret that they failed to kick on from there.
Having beaten France first up, Jacques Brunel’s side kept England try-less at Twickenham to earn a losing bonus point before signing off with a 22-15 win over Ireland in Rome.
“Against Ireland, in 2013, the last match of the Six Nations, that was the most important single win, even more than the wins against France, because it confirmed that Italy was competing at a high level,” he said.
“More than half of the national team was playing for Treviso, myself included, and we were playing really well, and had one of the best seasons for 10 years. We brought that winning mentality to the national team.
“It was a very good Ireland too, but we played with confidence from the first minute until the end.
“Sergio Parisse had a yellow card in the second half and that is sometimes when Italy struggle ... when something negative like that happens.
“But then, we kept fighting and continued to play with the right mentality.”
Italy won more games in 2013 than in all the games since and are currently on a record 27-game losing run in the competition.
It pains a warrior-like player like Ghiraldini that Italy find themselves in such a position.
“We missed a really good opportunity to step forward,” he said, speaking frankly.
“The first two years under Jacques Brunel were really good, but we didn’t have a long-term plan; we were thinking about today and not about tomorrow.
“You can’t stand still in rugby; you have to try and be better every day to keep moving forward.
“The last time we won in the Six Nations was in 2015. It is crazy. We have to do more.”
The Autumn of his career
Ghiraldini battled back from the serious knee injury he suffered against France in the final game of the 2019 Six Nations to make it to a fourth Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The 36-year-old was set to make his only appearance in the final pool game against the All Blacks, but like Sergio Parisse, another of Italy’s eight test centurions, Typhoon Hagibis denied him an emotional farewell.
Determined that his stellar career wouldn’t end in such a fashion, Ghiraldhini managed to make it into last year’s Autumn Nations Cup squad, appearing off the bench in three games to take his total tally of caps to 107.
Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli may have been deserted at the start of December, but at least Italy’s most-capped hooker got to bow out on the pitch, hitting rucks and mauls and leaving nothing left in the tank.
“I worked so hard to get back. So many things have happened in the last few years with my injuries, the typhoon and COVID, but I always wanted to get back and play for Italy,” he said.
“I am really proud to have played for my country for so many years. Even my last match was like my first. Every time I was preparing my bag for the national team, I was proud and happy.
“I always gave my all for this jersey on and off the pitch.
“My goal was to have a winning team and to help the team to get results. But it is not always easy with Italy.
“If you play for England and you only play at 80 per cent of your ability, you still win a game. If you play for Ireland and don’t have a perfect match, you can still win a game.
“It is not like that with Italy. You have to play at 100 per cent to be in with a chance and even if you play at 100 per cent, sometimes you still lose by 30 points.”
Open-minded about the future
After the Autumn Nations Cup, Ghiraldhini signed for Bordeaux-Begles who, at the time, were flying high at the top of France’s Top 14. However, COVID-19 cut the season short and Ghiraldini never got to play for his new club.
Ghiraldini still resides in France with his wife and two children though, in Toulouse, where he was a member of the 2019 Top 14-winning side,
With a degree in economics and an MBA in Sports Management, the 36-year-old former Italy captain has plenty to offer in or out of rugby.
But he has not called time on his playing days yet – if the right opportunity at club level comes along.
“Obviously, I know I am not 20 years old; I have to think more about the future.
“If a door opens, I have trained every day as if I am preparing for the World Cup because I want to say at least I give everything if someone calls me.”