Italy men’s sevens team seeks return to the big stage
The European men's qualification tournament for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 is on the horizon with the prize of four tickets to Cape Town, South Africa at stake in July.
Just the thought of going to a third Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament – this time as a coach – is enough to give Andy Vilk goosebumps.
Vilk got to sample the delights of Hong Kong in 2005, albeit as 13th reserve and was in the England squad that topped its pool four years later in Dubai only to crash out in the quarters after being beaten by Samoa.
And now he’s hoping to get there again as the man in charge of Italy, who last appeared on the big stage in 2009, the year rank outsiders Wales took home the trophy.
Italy and Wales will each be competing for one of the four men’s tickets available to Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022, at the European qualification tournament in July.
Making up for lost time
For Vilk, the challenge will be to ensure his players are as ‘game-ready’ as possible when the time comes given they’ve rarely taken to the field together.
COVID-19 left a massive hole in the playing programme and the first leg of the Rugby Europe Men’s Sevens Championship in Lisbon at the end of June will be the first time they’ll have competed at an official tournament in 12 months.
“Last year we just had two official tournaments and it’s the same this year, we’re just doing official tournaments,” said Vilk, who also enjoyed a good professional career in 15s with Northampton, Sale, Treviso and Calvisano.
“The challenge for us is to try and replicate game experience as much as we can in training by giving them the potential scenarios they face on the pitch in games.
“The guys will be as trained as much as they can in terms of strategy and tactics but when it comes to the actual tournament, it is a different animal.
“Our last official tournament was in June last year in Moscow,” he pointed out. “We went from having nothing in 2020 because of COVID-19 to having a hit out with France and Spain the week before the Rugby Europe Sevens Men’s Championship, and then we were straight into Lisbon and then Moscow.
“We had some guys who’d played before in 2019 but some new guys as well who were finding their feet. There was a lot of learning ‘on the hoof’ so this year we are trying to be as ‘game-ready’ and ahead of the game as we can be.”
📆 Save the Date!— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) May 18, 2021
Rugby World Cup Sevens is heading to Cape Town, South Africa from 9 ➡️ 11 September, 2022! 🇿🇦#RWC7s
Anything can happen in sevens …
Vilk knows that with the likes of Ireland, Wales, Spain and Germany all having HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series experience, it will be tough for Italy to make it through.
But the 40-year-old has high hopes for his adopted country, where he has lived, in Treviso, for the best part of 15 years.
“Yes, we are up against it in terms of there are three World Series teams still to qualify and four spaces in the line, and over and above those three teams there are also our close competitors, Georgia, Germany and Portugal – without wanting to leave anyone else out – in what is a very competitive European circuit.
“But if you make it through to the quarter-finals it is all on one game because reaching the semi-finals is enough to qualify. And anything can happen in 14 minutes of sevens.
“We are not naïve and we know everyone will be looking at it like that, but we would also be remiss not to see it as an opportunity for ourselves.”
Hoping to build on the feel-good factor
Should Italy qualify for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022, it would only add to what has been a very decent period of international rugby for the country.
The Italian women’s 15s team automatically qualified for Rugby World Cup 2021 and then won three games at the TikTok Women’s Six Nations for only the third time in 16 years. Meanwhile, the Azzurini, as the Italian men’s U20s are known, won a couple of matches in their Six Nations and the senior men triumphantly ended their seven-year wait for a Six Nations win with a prized victory against Wales in Cardiff.
With new Italian Federation of Italian Rugby (FIR) President Marzio Innocenti being a big supporter of the shortened format of the game, sevens has taken on a new lease of life and it’s now seen as an important part of the player development pathway under the astute direction of the FIR’s head of high performance, Franco Smith.
“Franco is really trying to push it (sevens). He wants to give the players as much exposure as possible to high-level rugby,” informed Vilk.
“Obviously you’ve got the national side and the two franchises and Franco wants to use the A team and the sevens team as another platform.
“He’s been travelling around the Top 10 clubs and presenting sevens as part of that project.”
Talent production line in rude health
When Vilk was in his pomp as a player, England Sevens served as a vehicle for young up-and-coming players like Ben Youngs and Mathew Tait to earn their spurs and become accustomed to playing in high-pressure games in front of big crowds.
And now his Italian team is doing the same with the likes of Oliviero Fabiani, Mattia Bellini, Federico Mori and Federico Ruzza all having been capped after experiencing the sevens set-up, while Giacomo Da Re is not far away from joining them having been called up to this year’s Six Nations training camp.
“I like to champion those players because it is part of their pathway and it has given them invaluable high performance experience,” Vilk said.
“I’ve been in this role for a while (since 2013), and taking them to Challenger Series tournaments like the ones in South America in 2020 has helped the guys to develop because it helps them to cope with some of the things they will eventually face when they go into the senior men’s 15s team.”
Having been a bystander to the big events in global sevens now for well over a decade, qualifying for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 would probably top all the recent achievements in 15s.
“It’s the World Cup, I get goosebumps now just talking about it,” said Vilk, excited at the prospect of leading Italy in South Africa.
“It is one of those tournaments that every player dreams to be involved in.
“We are fortunate in sevens to have the Olympics as well now, and that and the World Cup are two things you always have there in the back of your mind. It is a great honour to represent your country on stages like that and we’ll do our best to make the country proud and, hopefully, qualify.”