“I’m absolutely buzzing” – Laura Keates determined to make up for lost time at Rugby World Cup 2021
We caught up with the Rugby World Cup winning prop to discuss her long journey back into the England squad.
Italy could not have scripted many better ways to conclude their Rugby World Cup 2021 preparation.
On 9 September, the Azzurre recorded their fifth-ever win over France, impressively bouncing back with a 26-19 victory after losing the opening game of a double-header with their transalpine neighbours.
The triumph in Biella not only raised the confidence of an ambitious squad but saw them leap to fifth place in the World Rugby Women's Rankings powered by Capgemini – Italy’s highest-ever placement.
Centre Michela Sillari was among the try scorers at the Stadio del Rugby that day, but she insisted in conversation with World Rugby that feet are being kept on the ground.
“Of course, winning your final preparation match for the World Cup gives you a bit of enthusiasm,” she said.
“But we know that every match has its own story. We must be happy with what we’ve done, but aware of the fact that we must continue playing well in the pool matches, which will be very difficult.”
She has a point. Italy have been drawn in Pool B, which is arguably the hardest to call of all three.
They face the USA first – the team they leapfrogged in the rankings after beating France – on 9 October.
Next up is world number three side Canada, who won a July warm-up game between the two 34-24, on 16 October, and finally Japan on 23 October.
The top two sides from each Pool will qualify for the quarter-finals, as well as the two best third-placed teams, and Sillari is determined to go deep in the tournament.
“The goal would be to reach the semi-finals, even though it’s a complicated path,” she said.
“I think our pool is evenly balanced; we don’t have any easy games, nor do we have any impossible ones.
“We must make the most of our pool to get through and put ourselves in a good position. We have all the characteristics needed to do well, we just need to be accurate and determined on the pitch.”
The event in New Zealand, which was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, marks Italy’s fifth Rugby World Cup appearance.
If Sillari’s objective of reaching the final four is achieved, it would be her country’s best-ever achievement at the tournament – their previous best was a run to the plate semi-finals in the inaugural event of 1991.
Increased ambition is the result of a strong period for Italian women’s rugby.
Since RWC 2017, Italy have earned a best-ever runners-up finish in the Women's Six Nations 2019 and only once finished outside of the top four in the fiercely competitive annual event.
That was this year, when they still won two games, but finished behind Wales and Ireland on points difference.
When it mattered most, they came up trumps by finishing top of a four-team round robin tournament last September to earn direct World Cup qualification ahead of Scotland, Ireland and Spain.
It’s not all smiles, though. Italy suffered a major blow in their first warm-up match against France when captain and try machine Manuela Furlan suffered a serious knee injury.
The 88-time Azzurre international was still named in Andrea Di Giandomenico’s squad after "positive evaluations from the medical staff" suggested she may still recover in time to feature.
But for now Elisa Giordano has taken over captaincy duties, with Sillari and Melissa Bettoni as her deputies.
“It was a nasty surprise that nobody was expecting. In our sport injuries can happen, but leading up to a World Cup, it was an ugly blow for us and for her,” said Sillari.
“Let’s hope that she manages to recover by the end of the tournament. As a squad we will try to get as far as possible to let her come back.”
The 29-year-old Sillari has earned 70 caps, a haul only bettered by four players in the Italy squad, and she will be looking to use every ounce of that experience to help her country seize its moment in New Zealand.
“It’s an event that only takes place every four years, so it’s more important than the Six Nations,” she said.
“It has a different flavour, different expectations, because you have to qualify. All the preparation we did for the qualifiers was very important, so to finally get there is great.
“This can’t be a finishing point but a starting point. We are aiming to not just turn up, but to play all our cards as well as possible to get through the pool stage.”