It’s little wonder that Paolo Garbisi is still coming to terms with the events of this year.
He began 2020 playing for Petrarca Rugby in Italy’s top domestic division. He ends it as the Azzurri’s first-choice fly-half, and with more appearances for his country than his club.
The 20-year-old’s rapid rise has been remarkable to witness and suggests a bright future lies ahead.
And although few expected Garbisi to climb through the ranks so quickly, signs of his precocious talent were there to see for those paying attention.
A BEAUTIFUL SURPRISE
Garbisi caught the eye as Italy captain at the World Rugby U20 Championship 2019, where he scored 33 points and masterminded wins over Scotland and Georgia.
“The World Cup was a very important moment because it was the first time that I could play at the top level,” he says.
“I played against the best young players in the world. It was very fun and stimulating, but also difficult – it was a very useful experience for me.”
The youngster’s progress with the Italy U20s, who he led to a Six Nations victory over Wales on the opening day of the 2020 tournament, ground to a halt when the tournament was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But there was no stopping his momentum. In June, Garbisi signed as a permit player for Benetton and less than a month later, he was called up to Italy’s senior squad for the first time.
“This was my dream and I always wanted to work towards this, but I never expected that a call-up would arrive as soon as that,” the stand-off admits.
“It was really a beautiful surprise for me. It was difficult in the sense that this is the highest level that you can play at. But my team-mates helped me a lot, because they knew that I needed some help to begin with.”
THROWN IN AT THE DEEP END
Things accelerated quickly for the 20-year-old in October, when Garbisi scored 24 points in two PRO14 games for Benetton against last season’s finalists Ulster and Leinster in the space of a week.
Italy head coach Franco Smith was convinced, and with just two games of senior rugby under his belt, Garbisi was handed the No.10 shirt for Italy’s Six Nations clash with Ireland in Dublin.
“Before the game I was really nervous,” Garbisi admits.
“My teammates helped me a lot and tried to keep me calm. I tried to focus on the things that I know how to do well.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great game, but the tension and nerves went away once it started.”
Italy’s 50-17 defeat at the Aviva provided a challenging first experience of test match rugby for Garbisi, but the young playmaker ended the contest with his head held high.
In the final minute, the fly-half produced a dazzling individual try as he burst through the Irish line, sold a defender with a dummy and dived under the posts, a fitting reward for a promising debut in which Garbisi scored 12 points.
“I have to say it was a little moment of happiness for me, even if the emotion after the game was sadness because it didn’t go according to plan,” he says.
BALANCING THE STUDIES
The Venetian then had the chance to face off against one of his role models when he retained his spot for Italy’s Six Nations finale against an England side skippered by fly-half Owen Farrell.
“When I was little, as soon as I started to play, I liked Dan Carter a lot,” Garbisi explains.
“I watched his videos and his matches. Then from around the age of 14 or 15 until now, I was always inspired by Farrell. Those are the two players who have inspired me and who I still watch today.
“Until recently I wasn’t doing anything apart from watching his (Farrell’s) videos and matches, so playing against him was really emotional for me.”
But world-class No.10s aren’t the only thing Garbisi studies. He is currently in the second year of a law degree at the University of Padua – something he admits can be difficult to juggle with his ever-increasing rugby commitments.
“There isn’t much time, and when you have time, you’re a bit tired,” he says.
“I’m not the only player who is studying while he plays. You need to take advantage of every moment that you get.
“Currently I’m thinking more about rugby than university. My course lasts five years, but I think I’ll finish it after seven or eight years. It’s not a problem for me.”
FAIL TO PREPARE, PREPARE TO FAIL
Garbisi started in Italy’s Autumn Nations Cup defeats against Scotland and France and is in line to feature when the Azzurri face Wales on Saturday.
The youngster is now in the remarkable position of having earned more international caps (four) than club appearances (three), leaving him with a lot to take in.
“I’ve learned so much and I’m still learning a lot,” he says.
“The major difference is the intensity with which you play these games, but also you must prepare yourself very well on the physical, mental, technical and tactical levels.
“These matches demand huge preparation before kick-off in order to perform as best as you can on the pitch and to commit as few errors as possible.
“It’s difficult to believe that all of this has happened in such a short time. I’m very happy and hope to continue playing into the future with the Azzurri shirt.”