The Italian Job – Part One: Lost In Translation

One of my favourite aspects of covering club rugby is shining a light on those players ready and willing to take that step to the next level. But while a significant number across Australian Super Rugby’s five teams hail from the fertile breeding grounds of the Shute Shield – around 70% – there are only so many places going spare each year. As a result, we’re seeing an increasing amount of players seek their professional breakthrough overseas, with Europe the most popular destination.

Three players who fall firmly into the category of ‘pro-ready’ are Manly’s Ed Gower, Warringah’s Sam Ward, and Eastwood’s Tom Hill. I’ve been banging the drum on 29-year-old Ed’s behalf for years, and it still baffles me why no-one has found a place for the uncompromising lock on these shores, while 26-year-old Sam and Tom’s performances in club colours, in the last two seasons in particular, have seen them also push very much to the front of the queue for a ride in the next cab off the Super Rugby rank.

But with nothing concrete on the table at the end of the 2015 club season, the talented trio – who put club allegiances aside to run out together for the Sydney Rays in the NRC – jumped at the opportunity to experience life as a professional in Italy. They didn’t arrive in Il Belpaese, ‘the beautiful country’, at the same time or via the same path. But when they did, they enjoyed an experience they will never forget, with Sam and Tom – and Gordon’s Scottish prop Nick Fraser – playing alongside each other at Piacenza Lyons, and Ed three hours up the road with Petrarca.

Now back home and back in time to try and drive their respective clubs towards the finals and beyond, the three sat down earlier this week for a cappuccino (Hill and Gower), and a lungo (Ward) to reflect on their Italian adventure, the Shute Shield challenge lying before them in the next few weeks, and what lies further down the road on their ongoing rugby journey.

I wanted to know what life is really like for an Australian rugby player on the other side of the world – on and off the field. Is it all it’s cracked it up to be? Is it the opportunity of a lifetime or one that needs careful consideration? Are there any downsides or is it all win-win?

Whether you’re a general rugby nut, a passionate club rugby supporter, a Marlin, Rat or Woodies diehard, a travel enthusiast, or a current club player thinking of following in their footsteps, the boys came up with plenty of good stuff to sit back and digest.

Andiamo!

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CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO, where Sam, Ed and Tom discuss ‘la dolce vita’,
the Shute Shield finals race, and what they’re up to next…

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Great to see you again fellas, first things first I guess, how did the Italian opportunity come about for each of you?

Sam Ward: “It was strange how it all happened. Towards the end of the Shute Shield season I was approached by an Italian player-manager on Facebook on behalf of the Piacenza Lyons club, asking if I was interested in moving to Italy. I initially said no, but then he contacted me again during the start of the NRC season, and at that point I was feeling like a move overseas may be just what I needed. Where or how the club noticed me I never actually found out!”

Tom Hill: “The Italian offer actually came about through Wardy. We’ve been friends since playing Gordon colts together back in 2009, and we’d talked at the Rays about how no Super Rugby teams were after us and that we’d love to go overseas. He got signed and went over, but soon after there was a season-ending injury to an inside back and Wardy suggested to the club they get me over. My manager took care of everything from there, but without us chatting about going overseas and Wardy’s recommendation, the Lyons might never have found me.”

Ed Gower: “Well, it was a longer way around for me to get there really. I played the first round of the NRC with the Rays, and when I came off the field and looked at my phone I had a series of missed calls from an agent I had been speaking to from the UK. A week later, my girlfriend Gemma and I were on a plane on the way to London to train with Saracens on a two-month contract as they had 17 players from their squad taking part in the World Cup. It was an amazing experience, and to see them go on to win the English Premiership and be the European Champions was no surprise after seeing the way they went about things. Then, literally a day or two before we were due to return home, I received another call from the same agent. Days later I was in the Italian consulate in London, and a week after that phone call I was landing in Venice in the deepest fog I have ever seen!”

Had any of you been to Italy before?

Tom: “Yes, with my family when I was 13 years-old. It was an amazing experience.”

Ed: “This was my first time.”

Sam: “No, I had never been to Europe, let alone Italy. To be honest I hadn’t even moved out of home yet! So it was a first on many fronts for me.”

Sam Ward_Nick Fraser_Tom Hill_Piacenza trophy room

Ward and Hill flank Gordon prop Nick Fraser in the Piacenza Lyons trophy room

Apart from each other, were there any other Aussies or familiar faces playing in the competition?

Sam: “We had Nick Fraser from the Rays and Gordon at Piacenza, and Matty Lucas was playing for Calvisano for a while but returned to Australia to play with the Tahs mid-season. Apart from that, no-one else that I knew of. But there were plenty of Kiwis, Argentinians and South Africans in the other teams.”

Ed: “Jeremy Su’a, who has played at West Harbour and Penrith and also featured for Samoa as well as a series of other professional teams, was with me at Petrarca.”

Sam was the first to arrive and suss out the lie of the land over there. I assume that made things a heck of a lot easier for you when you got there Tom?

Tom: “Having Wardy there before me was an unbelievable blessing. When we rocked up he helped with everything. You forget the admin involved in going to the bank, getting an Italian phone, organising a car, paperwork for visas etc. – all done in Italian. There wasn’t a lot of English spoken through the club, so with Wardy’s Italian at that stage being surprisingly good we got by. But it would’ve been very hard without him!”

While these two had each other and Nick Fraser to help settle in, what was it like for you settling in at Petrarca Ed?

Ed: “Jeremy Su’a was a lifesaver when we arrived. He contacted me before we got there and filled me in on so many things, and he helped me get around and settle in. There were a couple of Kiwis I quickly befriended and altogether we were the foreigners, or ‘strangers’ as they called us, who always sat together and drank cappuccino’s. The Italian boys in the team were great though, they spoke a lot more English than I had expected and were helpful and patient with me. I made some good friends.”

You mentioned the language difficulties, how did you all go with learning Italian?

Sam: “Penso molto bene grazie! (I think very well thanks!) At the beginning it was a massive challenge. There was only two weeks between when I signed and when I arrived in Italy, so I hadn’t considered the fact that I was going to play rugby or live in a country that spoke another language. My first game was against Matty Lucas’ team, which was funny because our Italian was virtually non-existent, and we spent the game using the few words we had learned and laughing about it. I didn’t do any formal lessons but I did set aside time everyday to practice, whether that was on an application on my phone or by watching TV in Italian with English subtitles or vice-versa. By the end of the season it basically just flowed out.”

Ed: “A few years back I put hundreds of hours into trying to learn French and I learnt one thing – languages are hard, way harder than I ever thought! But I would say I grasped some of the basics in the way languages worked. When I arrived in Italy I read two things, a pronunciation guide and a grammar guide, and unlike French, it made sense to me. From that moment on, I didn’t make much more of an effort to learn Italian but it seemed to rub off on me a lot. I started with some basic sentences, and by the end I had a handful of useful phrases that I would use daily. But in no way would I ever say that I ‘speak Italian’.”

Tom: “My Italian started off pretty well, but I got lazy speaking English with the other foreigners so it stagnated a bit. I got the basics down pat – how to order food and drinks and get around and that was enough! On the field it was all ‘Si, si – passa la palla’, which was pretty ‘facile’ (easy). Everything seemed to be ‘preggo’ (all good) in the end!”

Sam: “I was made captain of the team after three months, a massive honour for me being a foreigner and not from an Italian speaking background. But that definitely helped because I was regularly involved in discussions with other players. After four months of being there I had my first interview in Italian, which was terrifying. I don’t know if it made any sense to those who watched it but it did in my head! The interviewer was nodding so I assumed he understood.”

Sam Ward Italian montage

Sam Ward: Leading out the team as captain; in action for the Lyons

So, you arrive ready to train and play, but what about accommodation. Did you have an apartment provided by your clubs?

Tom: “The club provided a really nice simple one-bedroom apartment, which was perfect for myself and my partner Marnee.”

Sam: “Yeah, the club provided me with my own apartment that was furnished and a car, for which they picked up all the costs. We only had to pay for our daily expenses and petrol, which was awesome. That meant we could save money to travel around when we had some time off.”

Ed: “Well, I had been promised a furnished apartment for Gemma and I to live in but when we arrived, it wasn’t ready. I thought that was fair enough given that it had all happened so fast, however, days turned to weeks and after two months in a hotel room without a kitchen I’d had enough. I went on strike and refused to come to training – or anything else for that matter – until the situation was sorted. Luckily, that was the only day of training it snowed and we moved in that afternoon.”

Of course, if you’re in a relationship, opportunities like this can also be dependent on the support of your partner and whether they want/are able to make the trip with you. I gather that not only were your partners alongside you for every step, they also made the most of their time too?

Sam: “Yeah, my partner Ellen joined me at the start of December and then when Tommy and Marnee moved over we ended up being neighbours, which was awesome. Also, Nick only lived about five minutes drive away with another player.”

Tom: “Luckily, Marnee and Ellen – not that they had much choice! – got on like a house on fire. They had a ‘WhatsApp’ group with some of the other girls called ‘Piacenza Housewives’! They absolutely loved it, and all of us non-Italians became very close and will be mates for life.”

You were a few hours up the road in Padova Ed. Did you get to hook up with these guys at any point away from the rugby?

Ed: “We spoke regularly, letting each other know when we were going to visit places. But despite our best efforts we only bumped into each other once or twice outside of rugby. Yes, it was only three hours away but it was enough. I actually made a trip to Verona on a Wednesday to catch up with (former Waratah and Manly Marlin) Greg Peterson, who was travelling from Treviso to Parma while touring with the Glasgow Warriors for their Pro12 matches. I was standing with big Greg looking up at the Romeo and Juliet balcony when I heard a ‘G’day boys.’ I looked over to see Hilly standing next to us. He’d had the same idea, on the same day, at the same time.”

Tom: “They were actually having a romantic walk in the city of love!”

Ed Gower Italian montage

Ed Gower: Friends for life; game face; in action for Petrarca

Tell us a bit about Italian rugby and the clubs you played for in particular – Piacenza Lyons and Petrarca

Sam: “There are 10 teams in Italy with most being based in the north half of the country. Like a lot of Europe they have a promotion/relegation system, and the Lyons had just been promoted from Serie A to the top Italian competition.”

Tom: “This was actually the first year for Piacenza in the top comp (Eccelenza), so their main goal for the year was to stay there, and we did that. The club has been around forever, and walking into the clubhouse seeing the trophies and memorabilia you can see they are very proud of their history. One night as an initiation, every new player had to read – in Italian – a traditional Piacenzan poem before drinking “the Lyons blood”, which was some putrid mix of mulled wine and meat broth with a few random chunks of God knows what. The chef proudly made the broth for all the new players, and they all said that once you completed this you were a Lyon for life.”

Ed: “Petrarca Rugby are based in a city called Padova, or Padua in English. David Campese played for them back in the day, there are photos of him everywhere and they told me about it plenty of times too. Historically they have been quite a strong team in Italy, one of the strongest.”

How would you compare the standard of the competition and the style of rugby to the Shute Shield or NRC?

Ed: “It’s quite a mixed bag of teams in the comp. Some are professional, some aren’t, and as you’d expect, the pro teams are much stronger than the others. Some games felt similar to Shute Shield matches, and even the hardest matches I played in I would say are similar to Shute Shield finals matches. However, some games against the lower teams on the table could be a bit scrappy at times.

“The style of rugby, as any Aussies would assume in the north, is largely based around scrums and kicking. The ref’s made even more of a contest out of the scrums than we expect over here, rewarding a dominant scrum with a penalty on most occasions whereas, in similar situations here the ref could sometimes command the team to play the ball. That led to an increased focus on scrums and field position, and less focus on running rugby. However, I did find the games just as physical in the tackle area, but maybe a touch slower around the park.”

Sam: “If I had to choose one it would be more like the Shute Shield, but still different in certain aspects. For me, it wasn’t too different being a backrower. The role was virtually the same – carry well and get the team over the game line. Despite this, it did take some time to adjust to the general game play. The average time the ball is in play was around 28 minutes, so that’s a fair bit shy of an NRC game, and we had plenty of time to rest between plays, which made for a number of big collisions when play resumed. It is definitely a forward dominant game, and I would rather have been anyone else than a winger during an Italian winter!”

Tom:The standard was overall somewhere between first grade and NRC, but the game was very different. There’s a lot of emphasis on kicking for field position with some pretty poor skills in terms of catch and pass, but there’s some big boys and very physical games. They’re very emotional as well – every game was like life and death. The weather plays a huge role in things. Considering it was often a wet and heavy track, the scrum became very important with more penalty goals than tries so yeah, typical northern hemisphere!”

How did you go with the winter weather, not too good apparently Sam?

Sam: “I hadn’t experienced anything like it before in my life. We were always prepared with big warm jackets, the houses had central heating, and everyone told me that they had an abnormally warm winter as it was always around zero degrees instead of minus 10. We also only had one day of snow where we were. But training at night made it definitely feel like it was minus 10 for me! Despite this, Tom, Nick and I still went to the local river during winter for ice baths, and the rest of the team thought we were insane.

“The craziest part of the weather in that region of Italy was the fog. We would have training sessions at night during December/January where I couldn’t see 10-15 metres in front of myself, so I would only know roughly where the ball was by listening to the other players who were in the general direction the ball had travelled. It was such a novelty for me but not ideal conditions for training.”

Ed: “Look, I’m not a fan of winter, but I knew what I was getting myself into and it was cold but not freezing. However, for the first time ever I trained in Skins, full-length upper and lower body Skins. The fog was a surprise for me too. In the middle of winter I don’t think it rained for about six weeks, which was great. But it was replaced by this thick, thick fog that would sometimes appear out of nowhere on a crisp sunny day. One training session I remember took place in about five degrees with blue skies and sunshine. I could see the snow on the mountains in the distance, it was crystal clear, then in a matter of minutes a fog blew in. We were working some lineouts around the 22 metre line and I couldn’t see the backs doing their plays in the other half, I couldn’t even see the halfway line. It was crazy”

Tom Hill Italian montage

Tom Hill: Making the local paper; kicking for glory; in action as the fog rolls in

What about the weekly schedule regarding training and playing etc – was it a significant change from life at a Shute Shield club?

Tom: “It was what I imagined, Wednesdays off and gym in the morning, train in the afternoon on the other days. It was great to be able to go to the gym and train full-time without having to work, and great to work on different skills like doing extra speed work, goal kicking and passing etc.”

Sam: “One half of the team was full-time and the other half was semi-professional. Players who were full-time had a gym session and extra speed and agility sessions in the mornings, and we had our field sessions in the evening. It was awesome to just focus on rugby finally. I had always wanted to not have to work and be paid to play rugby, so that was a dream come true in that sense, and it was amazing how much more time I had to look after my body and work on little things in my game. Having been used to working full-time here in Sydney as a physiotherapist and then going into that environment in Italy, I did sometimes feel like I had too much free time!”

Ed: “It was pretty similar to everywhere I’ve played before, with the exception of maybe starting a little later to accommodate for some of the boys going to Uni. We trained Monday, Tuesday and Thursday arvo’s, with a captain’s run on Friday morning. Usually training started with a meeting (reunion technica), which included some video analysis. That was then followed by an on-field session team (collettivo), then gym (palestra) and finally, units.”

How is Australian rugby viewed in Italian rugby circles – do they know much about it?

Tom: “Yeah, they loved Australian rugby. I swapped some Rays, Waratahs and Sevens gear and the boys were absolutely stoked! They’re super keen to learn about how everything works in Australia, and really passionate about their footy.”

Sam: “Italian’s definitely see Australian rugby as one of the strongest in the world, and they would constantly talk about how much they enjoyed our style of play, specifically our up-tempo style and willingness to move the ball. I found many people had a great deal of respect for, but also expectation of, any southern hemisphere player. A lot of the older ex-players involved in the club would often talk about their times playing with or against Roger Gould and David Campese in Italy.”

Ed: “They watch a lot of Super Rugby, I was surprised by that. With so much rugby at hand in the UK and Europe, I wouldn’t have thought they’d make the effort to watch it, but they did. And they loved it.”

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CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO, where Sam, Ed and Tom discuss ‘la dolce vita’,
the Shute Shield finals race, and what they’re up to next…

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Original version published by Rugby News on July 9th, 2016

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