The production of young, high-level talent in the Italian rugby movement has been since long restricted to a single national academy gathering the very best athletes on a yearly invitational basis. Recently, the production of players seemingly ready for professional rugby has substantially increased and this has been noticed by many, with Italy U20 consistently performing well in the U20 Six Nations and even being able to beat England in the last clash. The likes of Michele Lamaro, Paolo Garbisi, Tommaso Menoncello and Leonardo Marin are only some of the many players that are wearing the Italian senior national team jersey already at a young age, a sign that the formation system is starting to pay back the investments. However, in a recent announcement (17/02/2022), the Italian rugby federation (FIR) president Marzio Innocenti announced a general reform of this system that aims at involving domestic clubs more in the formation of young players. This raised some concerns: why touching a system that is finally seeming to work? One of the major doubts on this reform is whether domestic clubs actually have the means to form new talents at the same level than the FIR academy. According to president Innocenti, the reform will allow the federation to save substantial money which will be invested in club-level formation. The opinions on this matter are split: the optimists believe that this will bring back to clubs the knowledge acquired in years of academy formation, propelling grassroots rugby forward, while the pessimists consider this a risky move that would cancel the progress achieved in years.
A look to the past structure
The previously existing academy structure was set up in 2006. It involved four centri di formazione permanente (CDFP, “permanent formation centers”) and one top-tier national academy participating to the Italian Serie A, the second tier domestic league. The CDFPs were connected with local high schools, allowing the selected athletes to continue their education side by side with their sport growth. As of 2022, these were placed in Milan, Rome, Treviso, and Prato, a city near Florence. The idea was to offer the highest level of rugby education to a restricted elite of teenager players who showed significant talent. Each year a list of young players was invited to join the four CDFPs, and the athletes showing the largest improvement were then called by the FIR academy. Although it was deemed as successful in a 10-year assessment in 2016, it took longer than expected for this system to start producing high-profile players at a fast rate. Nevertheless, over its 16 years of existence, the FIR academy has become a rite of passage for all the players of national interest, giving them an organized environment where to grow their talents far from external pressure, constantly supervised by an expert staff. This system was an attempt to produce an environment similar to that of an English school, where promising athletes can hone their sport skills while remaining normal teenagers, go to school, get a study title, and stay away from unnecessary pressures. According to many players that passed through this system, the FIR academy taught them the ways of a professional athlete such as the importance of daily training, attention to detail, and a career plan. Those who fear the new reform are afraid that it will take this away from future talents, but according to the FIR president, it will only change some of the key aspects in player development.
Clubs and hubs instead of formation centers
The biggest issue of the academy system has been to produce a sufficient number of high-level players to sustain a rugby movement in a results crisis, as mentioned by president Innocenti in a press conference in 2021. While the FIR academy itself is able to produce good players, they’re just a small number compared to those produced by the European Tier 1 nations. Hence, the new reform had the intent to enlarge the talent pool both at the CDFP and at the academy stage. The first modification will be the closing of two out of four CDFPs (Treviso and Prato), and the contextual opening of ten poli di sviluppo (in English, “development hubs”) which will be distributed across the country. These hubs will be connected with their local rugby, pooling together up to 10 young talents per club. The chosen athletes will have multiple weekly conjoined trainings and exposure to extra formative sessions at their hub, while still remaining associated to their club. This way, players will not be removed from their families and support system before they are 18. Moreover, this will enlarge the number of athletes receiving a higher rugby education in their teens. Bringing formation back to clubs is a risky move according to many who fear this is a setback in terms of training quality. However, it would also be an important occasion for knowledge transfer between the FIR academy staff and the clubs. In more than 15 years of FIR academies a lot of lessons have been learned, and it may be timely to transfer this information to club sides that are struggling to keep up with professional rugby, forming their trainers along with the players. As said by the FIR president, this move has the intent to bring the expertise gained with the academies back into the clubs, helping our grassroots movement grow together with the top. Moreover, as mentioned by the president, the two CDFPs of Rome and Milan will remain open.
Two new academies bound to URC franchises
The current FIR academy focused efforts in developing a very small number of players to the best of their possibilities. This has paid back when talking about individual, crystalline talents (e.g. Paolo Garbisi) but it hasn’t delivered enough quality players to raise the bar altogether. To take a step in this direction, the new reform will see the opening of a new academy tied to Benetton Treviso, and the moving of the FIR academy based in Parma under the control of Zebre Rugby. This decision came after seeing how good certain players developed when placed in a professional context. Academy players joining Treviso and Zebre have shown daily improvement when training in a professional rugby context, side by side with seasoned professionals of the sport. When looking at the involvement of players of the same age grade in professional sides in other countries, 75% of the English academy players are involved in a professional club activity, 45% in France, while only a staggering 5% in Italy (source: OnRugby). Players entering the franchise academies will have a FIR national contract for three years, something that already exists in the current federal system. In the U21, U22 and U23 age grades they will train alongside professional athletes, play significant minutes in the URC, and regularly play in the domestic Top10 league. The nature of this association has not been cleared out yet by the federation, but it could be similar to the permit player system. Meanwhile, they will also partake in international age grade test matches with any of the National teams (U20, Emergenti, or senior).
A new flow of talent
This reform deeply restructures the flow of talent between the U16 and the U20 age grades. Currently, a player with promising talent is scouted by the age of 16 and invited in a CDFP. This often takes the player miles from home, trading their friends and family for a better rugby education. It is easy to see how not all teenagers would like that, as at that age they aren’t necessarily aware of the benefits. The new reform aims at letting them stay where they come from until the age of 18, developing their skills in their own club while attending special sessions at their development hub. If done right, this could significantly enlarge the number of teenager players who remain involved in rugby. Moreover, leaving the CDPFs of Rome and Milan open will grant continuity to the current system. Promising young players from rugby-poor regions may still move to a CDFP, if the closest development hub is far from their home or if their club doesn’t have a U16 age grade team. As shown in a previous article from our blog, in fact, our movement loses lots of talent around the U14 and U20 age grades. The development hubs may be a solution, leaving the players inserted in their support system while honing their skills at a higher level. By the age of 18 and with a study title in their hands, they may become eligible for the Benetton or the Zebre academy, continuing the pursuit of their dream. The benefits of this reform are in the number of players that will receive a better rugby education. This will largely raise the raw number of candidates eligible for an academy, possibly raising the number of future professional players too. There are, of course also risks to this new approach. Firstly, these benefits will not be seen before five or six years from now, when the first batch of players will have completed the whole formation cycle. We can only hope that it won’t be too late by then for our movement to remain in the top tier of Europe. Secondly, the success of this reform will heavily depend on how the changes will be carried on. Simply naming the hub locations and assigning the coaches won’t do any good. Planning has to be done, money have to be invested, foreign coaches have to be called to bring in new ideas, formative sessions for coaches have to be done. If these changes will come with this degree of commitment, then we may have found a solution to a decade-long problem.