The Italian Job – Part Two: La Dolce Vita

In Part One, Ed Gower, Tom Hill and Sam Ward talked about how they ended up in Italy, the standard of rugby, and how difficult it is to train when fog prevents you from seeing the players you’re playing with!

Part Two sees them discussing life away from the game in a country renowned for it’s love of fun, sun, food and drink, their return to clubland for the tightest Shute Shield finals race in years, and just what lies ahead for all three in 2016/17…

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So, we’ve heard about the rugby side of things, but what about the infamous Italian lifestyle? With all that extra spare time on your hands did you get to live ‘la dolce vita’ – the good life?

Ed: “It was without doubt the most relaxed lifestyle I’ve seen. ‘La dolce vita’ is a real thing and we experienced it. There’s no doubt that it took time to settle into it and work it out, and I think I was only just starting to understand it at the end. I felt like things are simple, because they like to keep them simple. Their priorities are spending time with friends and family, and having a good time when they do it. I’ve always thought, and I still do think, that those are my priorities too, but somehow the Italians do it better. Making time for it seemed to come more naturally and always revolved around food – and the food was amazing, so why wouldn’t it?”

Sam: “The lifestyle was something that took a while to adjust to, but something I will definitely miss because I think the Italians have it sussed. It definitely felt like everything happened a lot slower over there, and it made me realise how upbeat and fast Sydney is. At the beginning I found their three hour daytime siesta very frustrating, because for me that was the perfect time to go shopping and get essentials. But eventually I adjusted, and long lunches became a regular pastime with the boys, which were good fun. I am naturally a bit of an adrenaline junkie and wanted to go skiing. But if I had injured myself doing that I don’t think the club or my team mates would have been too impressed, so I stayed away from the snowfields. Instead, we travelled around most of the major attractions in the north. But I wish I’d been able to see more of the south of Italy because it looks so beautiful. Maybe next time!”

Tom: “Everything was very slow and relaxed. After gym in the morning we’d often go out for lunch together or go and get coffee. We swam in the river a lot once it got a bit warmer, and on days off we’d go on day trips and go sight-seeing. When we had a bye, we’d go away for the weekend, often all together. We went to Venice, Genoa and Florence, where we met up with ex-Gordon centre Tom Matthews and his girlfriend and hung out for the weekend. I would’ve loved to go skiing as well, but it ended up being too hard. If I were to go back though that would be a must.”

Ed: “We weren’t far from the beach and we tried a couple of them around Venice, which were nice. But it was probably too early and a bit cold to really enjoy them. The last week before heading home we spent down in Positano, a bit further south, and it was a great way to cap it off – truly beautiful and amazing. We were lucky to get a few weekends off for byes, which gave us the chance to head to a few other towns and see some of the country. Unlike here, every town is known for something different and often something special and years spent in Italy wouldn’t be enough to see it all. The wine was also good, but it was cheap. Dangerously cheap!”

Dolce Vita montage

La Dolce Vita: Fun, sun and adventure.There’s plenty to like off the field in Italy

Back to on-field matters, how did your respective teams end up last season?

Ed: “Petrarca finished 3rd, which was great, as the top four head through to the semis and they didn’t make the finals last year. The semi’s consisted of two matches, 1 v 4 and 2 v 3, home and away, with the average score of both games determining the winner. Unfortunately, we lost both matches to Calvisano.”

Tom: “The Lyons finished 8th or 9th – I’m not sure.”

Sam: “Certainly not as well as we would have liked having only won a couple of games during the year. But our club and team goal was to remain in the top competition for the following year and we achieved that, so that was a positive.”

Tom: “Yeah, once we weren’t relegated the boys were so happy. It was like we won the comp!”

Perhaps more importantly, how did you go against each other?

Sam: “We played Petrarca twice throughout the season and we lost both times – but I think that’s just because I didn’t play either time – ha! Nah, Ed’s team was one of the stronger teams in the competition.”

Ed: “Sam actually featured highly on both match previews we had in our meetings leading up to the games, and I was a bit disappointed he couldn’t play. I’ve always enjoyed playing against him in the Manly v Warringah derby. Playing against Tom and Nick was enjoyable though.”

Sam: “The first time I had some broken ribs from the previous match and missed out, and the second time we played them was right at the end of the season and I was rested, as the following game was do-or-die against another team who were facing relegation like us, and the coaches wanted to make sure we had all hands on deck for that match. I understood why I was rested, but at the time I wasn’t happy because I love playing against my mates. It always makes the games that little bit more special.”

Tom: “Playing Ed was a disaster. I injured my ankle and went off after 20 minutes and they pumped us. It was the only game my parents came to as well but they didn’t mind, they were just stoked to be there. I assured them it wasn’t always like that!”

Of course, while you were coming towards the pointy end of your seasons over there, the 2016 Shute Shield got underway. Were you able to keep track of all things Eastwood, Manly and Warringah?

Sam: “Yeah, social media makes it quite easy to keep up to date on things, and I was constantly bugging all my mates at the Rats for a debrief on how we were going. I spent a few nervous nights checking score updates, and it was also a good source of banter amongst Nick, Tom and I once the season got underway. And I’ve always enjoyed reading a Rugby News article!”

Ed: “I kept a loose eye on the Shute Shield and social media, and following Rugby News on Facebook was a good help. On top of that I had some correspondence with a handful of people from Manly, and even my family were very informative.”

Italian montage

Meeting up with Greg Peterson in Verona; group sight-seeing; Padua and Piacenza lie in northern Italy’s rugby corridor

It’s obviously been a weird old season with everyone beating everyone else. Were you surprised at some of the results that were happening while you were away?

Ed: “I only watched a couple of games but I’ve seen almost all of the scores. This season is like no other, it’s unpredictable with high-scoring close games week after week. I’ve never seen a top eight like this.”

Sam: “It’s definitely been a lot closer this year because in years gone by, five or six teams were almost guaranteed a finals spot. But now you have very few points separating the top eight, with all of us needing to probably win both of our last two games to make the final cut. I was disappointed to see that we had had a few games not quite go our way. But I had heard we were always in a position to win those games, which was a positive.”

Tom: “Any team can beat any other team on their day, and I think it’s great for the competition to be so close.”

Were you always going to come back and play club rugby this year, or did the way the season was panning out into the most exciting for years make you all want to come back even more?

Tom: “Yes, I always wanted to come back and play for Eastwood, and I’m really excited to be back in first grade now and pumped about the lead-in to the finals.”

Sam: “Whilst in Italy, I toyed with the idea of staying for another two years and becoming eligible for their national team. It wasn’t until I started seeing the Warringah team lists being posted that it just felt wrong not seeing my name there. That was probably when I started to really miss home. So it wasn’t so much the close games and the competition, it was just not being a part of something and playing alongside my mates who I had been through so much with over the last few years. It made me realise why, and who I want to play rugby for. So it was a really easy decision to come home to Warringah.”

Ed: “The nature of how I left meant that I never really knew what was going to happen next. I’ve loved playing for Manly and whether it was this year or another, I always knew I’d be back. It didn’t matter what was happening back here, it’s my home now.”

You were the first one to return Sam, coming back to the Rats and playing off the bench in round nine in the local derby against the Marlins – only three days after getting off the plane. How did you pull-up?

Sam: “Well, I’ve definitely had better preparation for a rugby game before, but I was just so excited to be there. My flight was actually booked for the following Monday, and it was only two weeks before I was meant to leave that I looked at the Shute Shield calendar and saw I was going to miss the derby game by two days, so I got my flight changed! I played my last game in Italy on the Saturday, and on Monday I was on a flight home. It was so strange to go to training on Thursday night and everyone be speaking in English. That’s something I didn’t realise I would find so strange.”

You’ve started every game since. Now you’re back in the groove, how do you think the Rats are travelling?

Sam: “I think we are a far more dangerous team than in the past. Our team has really relied on throwing the ball around and catching teams off guard at times. I feel as though we still have that aspect of our play, which was instilled in us by Haig Sare and Sammy Harris. But now we’ve been able to develop an awareness of when to use that style, or be more methodical with it. As a team and a club we are so excited and ready for the back end of this season, and feel as though all the hard work of everyone from the players and coaches to support staff, is going to pay off.”

Tom, you came back to the Woodies and played off the bench in the round 11 win over Sydney Uni in terrible conditions at TG Millner. You must have wished you were back in the snow and fog of northern Italy?

Tom: “You have to love beating Uni at home, regardless of the conditions. My brother Adam is coaching there this year as well, so I had to get one over him!”

You played off the bench the following week at Souths and then started, captained the side, and took over kicking duties against Wests in Jai Ayoub’s absence a week later. However, a long-range penalty that smacked off the crossbar meant the Pirates recorded an upset win. How much of a setback was that loss coming off the back of the Uni result?

Tom: “It was very disappointing. As captain for the first time as well I was obviously keen to win and put in a good performance, and I think we tried hard but were far from our best. I tried to save it at the end with the long-range penalty but it wasn’t to be. I don’t think I could hit the crossbar again if I tried. Credit to Wests though, they played well and deserved to win.”

That loss was backed-up by another upset at the hands of Parramatta, the second time the Two Blues have downed the Woodies this season. We’ve become used to Eastwood losing very few games across the season and being there on Grand Final day, but this 2016 side have already lost six games and drawn one. Are they under-performing, or was this always a possibility with the loss of Hugh Perrett and Ben Batger to retirement, yourself and Nick Batger overseas, and Jared Barry, Jed Gillespie and others to injury?

Tom: “There’s no excuse for playing the way we have in the last few weeks. Even though we’ve lost some players, we’ve always prided ourselves on having great depth and working hard for each other. I think you’ll see a different Woodies team in the next two weeks. We’ve talked a lot this week about where we need to improve and I’m sure we will.”

Gower_Hill_Ward_Club montage

Back home: Gower, Hill and Ward have all returned to Shute Shield action in recent weeks

Ed, you stayed on in Italy for a while after the season ended and only landed back on the Tuesday before the Marlins’ pivotal round 14 clash with Southern Districts. You were fast-tracked straight into the starting side, how did you pull up?

Ed: “Yeah, I pulled up well. I was wrecked walking off the field but fine on the Sunday after a hell of a sleep. Sometimes I have a fear. It’s a fear I usually only have at the beginning of the season, before a beep test or a big fitness session. I get that fear before a first game, a fear of the pain in the lungs that I’ll feel during the match, but after the first match I don’t get it anymore. I can’t actually count how many times I said that I wanted to ease back into it, but once I was on the field I couldn’t stop myself, it just felt right.

“I was excited to be back at Manly, and I was stoked to be playing with some guys that I’ve known for years. Instinct took over and from there it all just kind of happened. The game was faster and there was lots more running than we were doing in Italy. I had to choose my moments and be careful of where I ended up, and at times I tried to use my mouth to organise, instead of my legs to run. I think some of the boys covered me at times and I was thankful. Cheers boys!”

The season hasn’t panned out as smoothly for the Marlins as last year either, where you finished as Minor Premiers and only lost two games on your way to the Grand Final. Losing guys like Reece Hodge, Matt Lucas, Alex Northam and yourself for most of the year was always going to make a difference. But is that the only reason the Marlins have struggled to back up, or do you think the playing group have just found it hard to match last year’s success?

Ed: “Yeah, it hasn’t been as smooth as last year and those other guys you mentioned were massive for us all season. From what I’ve seen this year, we’ve been struggling to have the consistency of the same players playing together week after week. We had injuries last year and losing Kotoni Ale was devastating, but this year seems to have been a bit more disruptive. It’s hard to build when you’re trying to catch up.”

Two rounds of the regular season to go and only 11pts separating 1st from 8th. Warringah play Easts and Randwick, Manly take on Gordon and Norths, while reigning Premiers Eastwood need to defeat both the Galloping Greens and the Highlanders just for a chance to defend their title. Are all bets off from here on in guys?*

Sam: “You are definitely right there! Since I have returned I have just been taking it one game at a time and that’s our approach to our run home now. Our previous games this year against these teams have been very close and could have gone either way. As a team, you want to play against the best teams because then come finals time, you know you are ready for anything that comes your way. I am looking forward to the weeks ahead.”

Ed: “It’s an exciting time. With the table being as tight as it is this year, who knows what could happen? For me, playing to our potential is going to be important for us, I doubt we’ve been close to it yet. The next two weeks is a chance to try and do that and after that, we’ll just have to see.”

Tom: “It’s very easy to sit back and expect things to happen for us because it has in the past few years, but we need to be more pro-active and positive. We know now it’s our responsibility to win our last two games and roll into the finals. We did beat second-placed Uni a month ago so we’re not far off. I suppose the last few weeks just shows how close the comp really is.”

The Shute Shield finishes in a month’s time before the NRC gets underway a couple of weeks later and runs until the third week of October if the renamed Sydney Rays make the Grand Final. Given you’ve all had no break from rugby since the end of 2014, what are your plans – can you go round again?

Sam: “Rugby-wise I don’t have any plans. I would definitely be interested in playing NRC again, and I have never lost sight of my dream to play Super Rugby. But at the moment, the one thing I can focus on is putting my best foot forward for Warringah, finishing the season strongly, and having no regrets.”

Tom: “Next for me is more than likely NRC. I loved it last year with the Rays and had a great time. Then hopefully another contract overseas and just keep chasing the endless winter!”

Ed: “Not sure just yet. Somehow my body is feeling pretty good. Lets see what happens.”

Tom’s just mentioned that he’s up for another stint overseas, but did your time in Italy give you all enough of a glimpse of the professional life to want to do it again?

Sam: “The Lyons gave me my first full-time experience of rugby, I feel very privileged to have been able to do it and it has definitely left me wanting more. I was lucky enough to have an offer from the Lyons for next season, and since returning to Australia I’ve had two other teams express their interest in me as well. But while that is humbling, I have decided to stay here and play my rugby with Warringah for the immediate future.”

Tom: “My time with the Lyons has definitely made me want to be a pro player, and I’d love to go back to Europe. My preference would be to go to France and there are talks at the moment, but nothing concrete yet. I’d go back to Italy as well. The key is just to play well each week and something will come up. Where and when I don’t know yet, but I’m confident there’ll be another opportunity to head back.”

Ed: “My time with Petrarca will be an experience that I will remember forever. The rugby, the lifestyle, the country and the people, were all something different and in many ways, very special. I went back to work a couple of weeks ago in Sydney and I think its where I’ll remain now. There’s no place like home.”

Ward_Gower_Hill_farewell montage

Last one. When you’ve long hung up the boots and can sit back in a comfy chair with your feet up and a nice glass of chianti and look back on your ‘Italian Job’, what will you remember the most – the rugby experience or the life experience – and why?

Tom: “The life experience. We all became very close over there, and our little Italian family is what I’ll remember most. Rugby-wise, it was often frustrating but the game we won to avoid relegation was pretty special. The whole town turned out, there were fireworks, and when we won everyone ran on the field. To see how much it meant to everyone and to their families and friends was very special.”

Ed: “I played some good games of rugby there, and I’ve played some good games of rugby here. But it truly was a life experience that was eye-opening and enjoyable.”

Sam: “I will remember the whole experience for the rest of my life. I was able to live in Italy experiencing a completely different culture, meet amazing people, and do what I love and that’s play footy. Whilst it wasn’t always smooth sailing, I feel like I have developed not only as a person, but I also feel as though I am a better rugby player for the experience. It is impossible to forget.”

Thanks for sharing your amazing experience fellas. Best of luck for the rest of the season and for the rest of your time in rugby – over here, over there, or wherever that may be.

All: “Ciao!”

*Interview conducted prior to round 17, which saw Eastwood, Manly and Warringah all pick up vital wins

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HAVEN’T READ PART ONE?
CLICK HERE: The Italian Job – Part One: Lost In Translation

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Original version published by Rugby News on July 10th, 2016

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