In the heart of Italian rugby league with Matteo Portoghese
We have met Matteo Portoghese, FIRL Social Media Officer, to talk about Italia Rugby League and its development in the country.
Matteo, the national team just won the last two games against South Africa and Niue, what can you tell us about these victories ?
Good to see the guys win again at test level. Although Italian rugby league players have been involved in lot of events (Under 19 Euros, women’s test, club fixtures, ecc.) this season, the test team hadn’t played since their loss to Fiji at the RLWC in Canberra; so, it was encouraging to see new players coming in but also to have veterans like Brenden Santi, Josh Mantellato and even Terry Campese involved again. The main part of the players who wore the Azzurri jersey in the South African and Niue tests are Italian Australian, proud to represent their heritage; but it’s good to see Gioele Celerino and Simone Boscolo, Italian homegrown footballers now Australia based, on the field. Gioele has played for Campese’s Queanbeyan Blues (Canberra) last year, while Simone currently plays his club football for the Tully Tigers in North Queensland. International RL is always tough and both games were intense and competitive; looking forward for World Cup qualifiers next season, where we’ll hopefully see the best guys with Italian heritage alongside our best domestic players.
Back in 2017, during the World Cup, 1 win and 2 losses, did you expect better results ?
It was Italy’s second world cup, so maybe supporters could have desidered an improvement since 2013. But we were again unable to progress and go past the group stage. To be honest, we were unlucky, as we missed Terry Campese – one of the best five-eighths in the world – against Ireland and USA, and the young Jack Johns, who is very talented, broke his arm in the first game. The Irish game was intense, as we had some NRL players but they had lots of Super League experience and proved to be the better team; with the USA we went better but it was just impossible to beat the Fijians in the final game; 8 days later, they managed to beat New Zealand, proving to be one of the best teams in International rugby league. So yes, I could expected better results especially for the Ireland game, though I am a fan of Mark Aston (the then coach) and the likes of Liam Finn, Scott Grix, Michael McIlorum, Kyle Amor, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Tyrone McCarthy, ecc. have plenty of top-level experience and it was never gonna be easy.
Generally speaking what do you think about the evolution of national teams ? Where is the italian national team ranking in the world hierarchy?
We are currently ranked 13th in the RLIF World Rankings, so I can say we are in a good position, especially given we’re so young as a federation. Some would say we are there only thanks to Italian Australian heritage players, but we have played several test matches under domestic quota in the last few years and we’re developing the game in Italy. Outside the big 3 (Australia, New Zealand and England), you can’t say how strong a team is until you see how many NRL/QLD Cup/NSW Cup or Super League/Championship players are called up and this is where we are; in my opinion, our main target is creating a solid group, with players feeling to belong to Italy and able to gel as a team, but also combining professionals with homegrown players. It’s somehow happened in the RLWC camp last year, as the homegrown lads trained with and were inspired by our Italian heritage players, and has to happen again. In terms of world hierarchy, I believe we have one of the best squad outside the big 3 (Kangaroos, Kiwis and England) and the Pacific Islands’ best (Tonga, Fiji, Samoa).
Is the qualification for the World Cup 2021 a minimum goal ?
Well, having reached the 2013 and 2017 World Cup, of course we want to be there in 2021 aswell. It won’t be easy, as we have lots of young players coming in and we may have lost some long-serving veteran, but we are optimistic and so can be Leo Epifania, who coached the side in the test matches in Sydney. In order to reach the 2021 WC in England, which can be very important for the development of the game in all Europe, we must have a competitive squad and think long-term. I am looking forward to seeing Italy in the Qualifiers; the 2016 game with Wales in Monza (Milano) was very intense. So yes, a World Cup spot is our main aim and we want it to help develop the game and have more people discover rugby league in Italy. It’d be fantastic not only to qualify but also to have the games broadcast on Italian tv.
What is the level of the man Championship in Italy ? Could an european clubs championship be a good thing ?
In an ideal world, a European club championship/competition could be very good and useful to expand the game; I think of the Balkan League and how it’s helping. But… money comes to mind: in non tier 1 nations, you just struggle to fund a tour and it’s never easy to assemble a team of amateur players and have them travelling, as they’d have to be absent from work, ecc. But I recognize we need to be creative, brave too. We have an Italian team, Saluzzo North West Roosters, who entered the French League system, currently competing in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) division of the French National Division 2 (the fourth tier of rugby league in France), and I am a fan of Red Star Belgrade, whose application to join the 2019 Challenge Cup has been accepted by the English Federation. So maybe a European Club Championship is maybe too much, but we need to develop the local championship and entering the leading French and English competition were possible. Playing the best is necessary to improve. The level of our championship has improved, thanks to the stages teams and players have been doing with qualified coaches, but it’s not easy to work on the players’ skills if they play RL only in the summer.
Let’s talk about the women now, they play against France in Carcassonne, what do you expect for this game ?
It’ll be our girls’ third test, after their win in Lebanon in 2017 and the loss to France in 2018 in Toulon. I expect a tough game, as the game is France is very huge and French womens’ sport is strong and well handled in general. The Azzurre, ranked 9th in the Women’s World Ranking, will find a strong opposition in France, against players who are used to play this code of rugby all year long. We may be the underdogs but you never know in rugby league. About the whole event, I love the idea of the game being a curtain raiser to the men’s European Championship game (France v Scotland), as it’ll help women’s RL gain exposure. Looking forward to working with French and Scottish social media officer and to helping cover this double test match online. We need to make sportswomen aware there is a great sport called rugby league, which is fun to watch and play.
How the woman rugby league is doing in Italy ?
Currently, FIRL is working to create and develop a club championship for women. It’s not easy and we’d need more funds, to have the players train and play footy every week. The women’s game is somehow strong in Sicily and in North Eastern Italy. All the players I have talked to have told me they fell in love with the game and were proud to represent the nations at International level. In the long term, if we manage to establish a proper club competition, we’ll able to attract more players. Courses for coaches and referees are important, too. We have former Italian international players now coaching the women’s team and they can share their experience to the Azzurre.
What are the biggest problems you are facing to develop the game in Italy ?
First of all, we need to work hard and attract more funds. Only with enough money you can help creating new clubs, paying for football facilities, tours, ecc. It’s up to us being concrete with work on the field and I love how the people from the Italian Australian diaspora share their RL know-how with us. We could and should do more, of course. All the rugby players who try our code actually love it but there’s still a strange prejudice about rugby league; several ru people say it’s « boring » or non-sense like this. What I tell them is come and try is and then tell me about it. In addition to this, I’d like to see rugby league finally on Italian television; I’d like to see that happening and the game treated as an independent sport, not just a new « version » of rugby union. Both codes are amazing and deserve respect.
What are the links between rugby union and rugby league in Italy ?
There isn’t any link between FIRL (Federazione Italiana Rugby League), who acquired full membership status of the RLEF in March 2017, and rugby union authorities. There have been several dual code International players, Mirco Bergamasco being the last, and our championship in the summer is very useful for rugby union players to work on their skills; some rugby union clubs are very collaborative, too, as they host our stages, games and training. Several of our coached/staff members are involved in both codes of rugby. In the future, we will work to have a proper winter season in the country and to have people permanently « switching » to rugby league, but it’s important that people are aware they are free to enjoy all the sports they want. Freedom is everything.