One of the key elements of Italy’s resurgence on the women’s test stage has been the bond created within the squad, and centre Beatrice Rigoni believes that togetherness will prove crucial during the Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe Qualifier.
Rigoni wore the number 12 jersey when Ireland were beaten at the same venue in February 2019, and scored two tries to help the Azzurre secure a 41-20 defeat of Scotland just five months ago.
The centre has also played a pivotal role in developing the positive culture within the squad, using her positivity to help ensure that life in the Italian bubble has never been dull.
“The team’s spirits are sky high, we have been waiting for this moment to arrive for a very long time,” Rigoni told World Rugby.
“Rescheduling and postponements have not extinguished our desire to be on the pitch. On the contrary, the wait has increased our will to demonstrate that we deserve to be part of Rugby World Cup.”
Creating a supportive atmosphere
COVID-19 restrictions have meant that Italy’s domestic women’s competition has not returned since it was initially suspended in March 2020.
Since then, the only opportunity for the vast majority of the national squad, including Rigoni, to play in competitive fixtures has come through the Women’s Six Nations.
However, four training camps were held in July and August to prepare for the Europe Qualifier and an informal mentorship programme has been developed through which senior players have helped their younger team-mates bed in and thrive.
“The complicity between us has been consolidated in a very natural way,” Rigoni added.
“We do love rugby deeply and cohesion will be very important in the upcoming weeks, when we will all be together in the 'bubble’.
“Cohabiting all the time, at a certain point, will become a bit tiring and the team spirit we built up will be our extra weapon: it will help us in finding the force when our legs won’t.
“We are a diverse group, both experienced and younger athletes are part of it. How do we stay united? For example, I have been a ‘rookie’ also, and I do remember well how older athletes helped me.
“I know how it feels to be part of a new dimension and I want to support the 'newcomers' the way I was supported when I entered the squad.”
It is now more than seven years since Rigoni made her Italy debut and she is closing in on her 50th cap, although she will not bring up her half century over the next fortnight.
Still only 26, Rigoni is not planning on stopping there. “It’s a milestone I'm very proud of, but I'm aiming at 100!” she said, laughing.
“I think it's a valuable goal, which shows how much an athlete wants to 'be there', to be part of a group and work on common goals.”
‘Look at what we’ve achieved’
Rigoni’s own journey began in the youth section of Petrarca Rugby, where she counted current Italian men's international Mattia Bellini as a team-mate.
Growing up in Padua, though, representing their country at Rugby World Cup seemed like a distant dream.
“Honestly, when we were little I didn't think about the national team – we had fun together, that was all that mattered to us,” Rigoni said.
“When Mattia made his debut, I was summoned for my first Women’s Six Nations. I thought, 'look at what we’ve reached'.
“We keep in touch and talk about our journey. Even if we have different lives – he’s based in Parma, I live in Padua – when we catch up the bond is still strong. Some memories still remain.”
Rigoni is now intent on making new memories over the next two weeks, and earning a second shot at Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
Italy open their Europe Qualifier campaign against Scotland on Monday, and although April’s victory in Glasgow will give the team confidence, they are taking nothing for granted.
“We are aware of our potential, still Scotland is not a team to underestimate at all,” she said.
“All the athletes involved in the Europe Qualifier have been waiting for this moment, and we all will give our best to bring the victory home.”
Following such a difficult 18 months, Rigoni is hopeful that Rugby World Cup qualification would help inspire a new generation of female rugby players in Italy.
“Some time ago, women’s rugby fans were a small community,” she said.
“Now that the community is increasing and the interest in our sport is growing, we can aim at becoming an incentive for anyone who might consider approaching rugby — a further reason to do well.”