First published in Rugby League World, Issue 382 (Feb 2013)
Italy head coach Carlo Napolitano will take his team to next year’s World Cup with the clear intention of upsetting the odds and lifting the trophy at Old Trafford.
Former Salford City Reds player and BARLA under-18s tourist Carlo Napolitano was a part of the group of Italian Rugby League enthusiasts who brought the sport back to the nation in 2004.
Nine years later, the Azzurri are preparing for their first ever World Cup, and the head coach says that merely making up the numbers is not a thought he will entertain.
“We’re there to win it. I’m not going to be negative in my thoughts. You’d be stupid to enter a competition like that and not be aiming to win it,” says Napolitano.
“My belief is that if you’re not actively aiming for that then I don’t think you should be there.
“We’re very proud and feel very privileged to be a part of the World Cup and we certainly aren’t heading to the tournament just to make up the numbers.
“We’ve climbed a number of steps to get to where we are and we always looking to climb then next one.
“We will take it one step at a time and each game will be a new hurdle, but the main prize is winning the World Cup.
“The game against Wales at the Millennium Stadium will be a cracker as a part of the opening ceremony, and I’m very confident it will be an entertaining spectacle.”
Having emerged from a Qualifying Pool consisting of Lebanon, Russia and Serbia to book their place at the 2013 tournament, Napolitano has left no stone unturned in his preparation for easily the most important chapter in Italy’s Rugby League history.
A comprehensive talent identification process, encompassing eligible players competing domestically, in Europe and down under, is in full swing, and emphasis is being placed on striking the balance of fielding a winning team that is truly representative of Italy.
“There are two hats that I wear – one as a board member and one as a coach,” says Napolitano.
“As a coach I go out to ensure we are victorious every time we enter the field and I don’t think there are any coaches out there who don’t share that philosophy.
“But if I flip my hat to board member, I realise it is extremely important that we develop our sport at domestic and grassroots level in Italy.
“In our situation you need to generate interest from the top down and if we can be successful early then more people are going to try the sport.
“But if we fill a side with a lot of lads who aren’t ready yet then that could have a negative effect.
“Without letting the cat out of the bag, I believe we have some real diamonds in the 1, 6, 7 and 9 positions,” continued Napolitano, “and I think we’re going to be there or thereabouts among the strongest nations.
“It’s very easy to put these names on paper though, and we know that we have to gel as a unit to turn the potential into success, and I think gelling the team together will be the biggest obstacle for us to overcome.
“I’m massive on creating a happy environment for the players. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very serious when it comes to competing at a high level, but if we’re not enjoying it then there’s a danger we’ll lose our way.
“I know for a fact that everybody who has played for Italy in the recent past has made friends and stayed close with their team-mates after leaving camp, and that’s the culture we’re trying to foster.”
One player new to the squad and hoping throw his hat into the ring for the World Cup is Dewsbury Rams forward Dario Esposito.
Kiwi Esposito is a former Queensland Cup player with the Souths Logan Magpies and qualifies to represent the Azzurri through a paternal grandparent.
He made his Italy debut in September’s European Shield clash with Russia and now hopes to play himself into contention for a spot in the final squad for the 2013 tournament.
“As a heritage player, I was made to feel very welcome. All of those guys are great, and we can communicate, even if the level of conversation isn’t that advanced,” says Esposito.
“My Italian isn’t great but Rugby League is a bit of a universal language and I’m sure that will help build a little unity between the Italian and heritage players.
“There are a whole lot of players who’ve put their hands up to play for Italy who are far more qualified than myself, but I’d love to be on the list for the tournament.
“Italy could field 17 NRL players, I’m pretty sure, but whether or not they do depends on a lot of factors. Finance plays its part, as does the philosophy of the coaching staff.
“They may choose to include some of the players who’ve helped them gain qualification for the World Cup.”
And, though cagy about his own prospects, Esposito is hoping that a big year at Championship level with the Rams can provide him with a boost.
“I think they’ll be taking 25 players, and whether or not I’ll be in that 25 – I’m not sure.
“I’ll make myself available to play for them throughout the year hopefully, depending on my club commitments, and that might help my chances, but there are guys on board who’ve played a lot more matches than me.
“I’ll just do what I can in the Championship next year and hope to get the call.”
Meanwhile, Napolitano and his off-field team recently enlisted the services of Italian soccer mega-star Alessandro del Piero as they look to generate interest in the Azzurri ahead of next year’s showpiece.
Del Piero recently signed for Sydney FC in Australia’s A-League and attended the NRL Grand Final, and it is hoped that the veteran striker can help drum up some interest in the Italian Rugby League World Cup campaign.
The FIRL also hope to be able to count on the support of the 15-a-side code, and Napolitano confirmed that London Broncos halfback Craig Gower, who played union for Italy earlier his career, will have a part to play in that.
“Craig is going to be extremely active in the build-up to the tournament, but his first and foremost focus has to be his club, and everybody understands that.
“If he comes through that unscathed then he’ll be playing Rugby League for Italy next Autumn, but Craig’s wise and he understands what he’s got to do.
“We’ve just sent some gear over to him for him to use for promotional purposes, and there’s no doubt in our mind that he’ll be a great asset to our cause.
“Rugby League was in Italy in the 1960s and rugby union has been there or thereabout since then,” Napolitano adds, “so the people do have an idea of how to play with the oval ball, and to an extent you’ve got to thank union for that.
“If we could get a better calibre of union player on board then we’d be in a much better position domestically and in preparation for this World Cup.”
By: Tom Coates