We chat to Paolo and Alessandro Garbisi
It probably wasn’t what Paolo and Alessandro Garbisi had pictured when they fantasised about playing together for Italy back in their shared childhood bedroom in Martellago, just north of Venice.
During all those long nights spent on the training pitch at the Mogliano rugby club, they would have perhaps imagined a grander backdrop for their dreams coming to fruition than the Stadionul Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest. And yet the recently renovated Romanian national stadium will always have a special place in the Garbisi family’s heart, it being the place where the brothers not only first donned the Azzurri jersey on the same pitch but the site of their first-ever outing as team-mates.
Italy’s 45-13 win over the Mighty Oaks on 1 July last year brought 20-year-old scrum-half Alessandro’s first cap and first try. And Paolo Garbisi, 22, came off the bench late on to make his 20th Test appearance in the inside-centre role where he’s often played this season for his club Montpellier, whom he steered to the 2022 Top 14 title in his first campaign since moving from Benetton.
“With me being two years older, I’ve always done things that little bit earlier than Ale, so we’d never played in the same team before that day in Bucharest,” Paolo explains.
“I was super happy that day, first of all because it was Ale’s debut. I was happy that he had managed to reach that objective, because I had seen how hard he had worked for many years to get there.
“We didn’t really manage to play properly together because I came on at 12. We were on the pitch together for a few minutes, so we don’t know yet if we will have a special bond in the way we play because we haven’t actually really done it yet. In fact, you need to speak to Kieran Crowley (the Italy head coach) and tell him to play us at nine and ten in the Six Nations!”
The form shown by Stephen Varney in the Autumn Nations Series, in which Italy claimed a first-ever win over Australia, thumped Samoa and played creditably in defeat to the Springboks, means that the Welsh-born Gloucester scrum-half will start the Six Nations as the man in possession, but it is surely only a matter of time before the Garbisi brothers axis gets another spin on the biggest stage. The pair have long been marked out for stardom, but at the same time have each covered a lot of ground very quickly since the days when Paolo became the first person in his family to pick up an oval ball.
“Our mum, Francesca, was a regional champion in the 100m butterfly, and even though me and Ale did a bit of swimming when we were really small, rugby was always our thing,” he says.
“I was attracted to it by watching Paolo,” the younger of the Garbisi brothers confirms. “When I was five and he was seven, I went to stand at the side for a few of his training sessions with our dad (Gabriele) and decided I wanted to give it a go as well.
“There’s only two years between us, so we were always together and playing the same stuff. Two years isn’t much, even if it doesn’t always seem like that! We always played sport together, whether it was rugby, football or basketball.”
Both boys had their moments in the classroom as well as out on the sports field. “Who was the best at school? I reckon Paolo, just,” says Alessandro. “He’s a little bit better than me academically, but neither of us ever failed a year or had to be kept back. I always enjoyed economics, the thing I’m studying now at university – finance, management, business.”
Paolo concurs: “I liked the things that I found that little bit easier and have kept them up. Law, economics – those were the things I liked the most and found most interesting, and I still do.”
The Garbisi brothers on the Test stage
Alessandro was still at school when Paolo went from having made only two Pro14 appearances for Benetton to being handed the keys at fly-half for Italy’s two delayed matches in the 2020 Six Nations. He excelled away to Ireland and at home to England and has been a mainstay of the side ever since, under Franco Smith and now Crowley.
He kicked the winning conversion against Wales last March which brought to an end that miserable run of 36 consecutive Six Nations defeats, and is at the vanguard of an exciting group of young talents who’ve given the nation real, substantial hope of a brighter future for Italian rugby.
Alessandro, meanwhile, starred in the Italy U20 team which won three matches in last year’s junior Six Nations, a run which included a first success over England at that level. They carried that form into the Summer Series tournament, where they beat England once again, as well as seeing off Scotland and Georgia. By that time, Alessandro had already agreed his first professional contract to play at Benetton.
“When I was in the (national) academy at 16 or 17, I started to understand that rugby could become something more. But I’m a bit of a pessimist, so I hoped it would happen but I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. I got through to the (Italy) U17s and U18s, but there are many players who reach that level and never do anything more. Once I got to the U20s Six Nations, I understood that if I really committed myself and worked hard, it could become my job.
“I was still at school when Paolo went from (Petrarca) Padova to Treviso and also from Treviso to Montpellier. That was the year I finished school. I am super proud of the journey Paolo has been on. I can only see him going from strength to strength.
“When I was free, I always went to watch his games, whether in Padova, Treviso or Rome with the national team. I was there in the stands cheering him on. I’ve always been a big fan!”
Have the Garbisis always been half-backs?
Each of the Garbisi brothers have had a decent go playing in the other’s position, to decidedly mixed reviews, both direct and third party.
“When I was 16, I played a year purely at scrum-half,” says Paolo. “At 17, I had a year playing almost always at 13, then from 18 onwards I’ve only been a ten. I didn’t really like playing scrum-half. I don’t really know how to explain it; you get a really strange picture of the game. Everyone else is doing more or less the same things, whereas you’re the one who is running from one ruck to the next, spending so often bent over. I didn’t particularly enjoy it.”
Alessandro adds: “Until I was 15 or 16, I only played ten. Then because I’ve always been quite small, they pushed me towards scrum-half. From 2017-18 onwards I’ve almost always been a nine.
“I preferred being a centre to a fly-half. But ten is a great role, you’ve got so much responsibility and you have to always anticipate.”
We ask how their relationship has grown and changed over the years. “It’s obviously a bit different now that Paolo is not living here, but we try to speak as often as possible. We spent three weeks sharing a room with the national team in the autumn, so we’re fully caught up now! Paolo is definitely stubborn. He’s a true perfectionist. He works really hard so that everything around him, everyone around him, is perfect. As the younger brother, I’ve always looked up to him as an example. He’s responsible, altruistic, very kind: these are Paolo’s qualities.”
Listening in, Paolo has prepared his own summation. “When Ale’s around people he doesn’t know, he can come across as a bit shy and reserved,” he says. “But in reality, when you know him well he becomes a different person: really kind, sunny, friendly. He has all the qualities you would want in a friend.
“He doesn’t mince his words. He says what he thinks. He’s a bit stubborn but then I probably am as well.”
Both of the Garbisi brothers talk positively about the potential for individual and collective progress in the Six Nations, but there is a flurry of confected discord when I ask which of them is the better player.
“Paolo has won the Top 14 and has many more caps than me…” Alessandro begins, before being abruptly cut off by his brother. “He’s just saying that. He’s desperate to say it’s him,” Paolo says.
“I only have three caps, so for now there is no debate,” the younger of the two replies. “I hope that is only for now!”
Paolo concludes: “He’s better than me. You’ll see that in a couple of years, you’ll be watching us and think, ‘wow, remember when Paolo said he’d be better than him’. It’s going to happen, mark my words!”
Three cheers for brotherly love!
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