How Italy chief is planning to put country back on the rugby league map

Orazio D’Arro, president of the Italian Rugby League Federation explains why he believes that despite a current lack of international fixtures, the Azzuri still have a future in the sport.

THERE is no denying that Italian Azzuri President Orazio D’Arro is as passionate as they come when it involves flying the flag for Italian rugby league.

A fiercely loyal servant to the Italians as a player, coach, manager and now President, D’Arro has seen it all.

His tireless work in ensuring that the Azzuri are kept busy on the international front is heavily backed by his Italian counterparts in Mick Pezzano and John Benigni, the latter two going on to resurrect the Italian national side back in 1995.

Although the Azzuri have been competitive over the years, D’Arro believes the best is yet to come, but there is much more work to be done if Italian rugby league is to remain competitive.

“I was actually born in Australia to Italian migrant parents, but my fierce allegiance to my heritage is what makes me proud to say that I am half Italian.

“I grew up in the Brisbane suburb of Bulimba, which is a stone’s throw from the Brisbane River. It was at Bulimba that I first tasted rugby league, with my parents signing me up to the local club Valley United Stars.

“Italians love their sport and dad was a fan of rugby league, so I suppose he wanted to see his son play a game he enjoyed watching himself.

“Once I found my feet with the other kids, I never looked back and fell in love with rugby league like most Australian born boys.

“Most people wouldn’t be aware that Italian rugby league has been around since the 1950’s when we had a flourishing domestic competition.

“Those early Italian rugby league pioneers have paved the way for our next generation.”

D’Arro’s determination to give rugby league a red-hot go saw him move to the Easts Tigers and Souths Magpies clubs in Brisbane during his teens, with his big break coming when he was 16, having been selected to play for the Queensland Schoolboys side.

“I actually ended up switching to rugby union in 1994 when I was at the Magpies. The visiting Italian rugby union side who was touring Australia at the time, were guests at one of our home games.

“The coach of their national side wanted to sign me to play back in the domestic competition in Italy, so I thought why not?

“It was over in Italy however that I received a call out of the blue by Mick Pezzano who was looking at resurrecting Italian rugby league alongside his good friend John Bengini.

“Mick and John both actually wanted to enter a team in the 1995 Rugby League World Sevens in Sydney.

“I really wanted to be a part of that and quit rugby union to follow my heart and that was playing rugby league especially for the Azzuri.”

Having been made captain of the 1995 World Sevens side, D’Arro would eventually go on to play for the Italians in 14 tests and has been at the helm as President for the past 11 years in what he describes as a roller coaster ride.

“To keep the Azzuri afloat, you need funding and that’s something we don’t get a lot of, so we have to find ways to keep the cash flow coming in to remain active.

“I’ve lost count of how much money I have personally injected into Italian rugby league, but it’s not about me or the money, its about keeping the Azzuri name alive on the international scene.

“It’s probably our biggest battle in that funding is the lifeblood for any side. Without funding you struggle and believe me, we have struggled over the years.”

D’Arro is quite adamant though that the Italians are still remaining positive especially now that they have welcomed aboard the Italian women’s rugby league and hopefully down the track, the Brisbane based builder hopes to start an Italian rugby league academy.

“Our women’s side is improving each time I see them play. It gives Italian rugby league another feather in our cap in that we have another product to showcase to the world.

“The girls are just as hungry as the men in tasting success and with our pathways in place, I only see good things on the horizon.

“I am also involved with the Carina Tigers RLFC in Brisbane and I have brought out a few Italian boys to play in Australia.

“However, I want to get a rugby league academy running in which Italian born players can learn the game here in Australia and be farmed out to other clubs.

“Development is key and with the domestic competition in Italy struggling post Covid, we need to keep these players active and interested or they will be lost to rugby union, which we are competing with in a David versus Goliath situation.”

With no internationals penciled in for the Azzuri as yet in 2024, the Italians last game was in October 2023 when they defeated a strong South African Rhinos side 50-20 in Sydney, something D’arro is proud of.

“We have a great coach in Leo Epifania who is really putting in the time and effort with the younger players. 

“You have to remember, we have had some fantastic NRL based players come through our system in the past including James Tedesco, Anthony Minichiello, and Terry Campese.

“Our aim is to unearth similar players to don the Azzuri jersey who will carry on the tradition of having quality talent.

“What I would like to see is the Azzuri side being as authentic as possible with Italian born players lining up for us.

“As much as I love having the heritage-based players in our side, you can’t beat that authentic touch and that’s what Italians are known for in everything we do.

“If you think that Italian rugby league is dead and buried, think again. We are working towards a brighter future and hopefully, we can show the rest of the rugby league world what we are capable of.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone