The back-row assesses her country’s progress and looks ahead to the RWC 2021 qualifiers

Italy captain Giada Franco’s World Cup ambitions

Italy’s women face a busy schedule over the next few months as they play the Six Nations fixtures postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as take part in Europe’s 2021 World Cup qualifying tournament.

Indeed, the fixtures list is so hectic that their Six Nations match against Scotland, originally due to be played in February and now rescheduled for December, is doubling up as a RWC 2021 qualifier.

Those World Cup qualifiers, which will feature Ireland, Italy, Scotland and the winners of the Rugby Europe Championship (most likely Spain), have long been on people’s minds because securing a place at the tournament in New Zealand next year is a huge carrot.

It will be hugely competitive, too, as only the winners automatically book a place, while the runners-up go into the repêchage.

Italy were second in last year’s Six Nations and started this year’s championship with a win over Wales and a loss to France before the rest of their matches were postponed, but can they make it to RWC 2021?

“It’s a dream for us,” says Italy captain Giada Franco. “We really want to achieve qualification. We just need to work and work to be able to reach it.

“I think other teams find our way of playing unpredictable and this is one thing that we’re really working on. Of course, we also need a little bit of structure – our set-piece, exits, management of the game, playing in the right areas of the pitch – but we don’t want to be predictable, we want to play whatever is in front of us.”

Asked to name Italy’s key players, Franco prefers to focus on the strength of the group but does name-check Sara Barrattin, Beatrice Rigoni and Melissa Bettoni. Yet it is Franco herself who is so crucial to this team.

Named Italy captain at just 23, her influence has grown over the three seasons since her debut. She gives her side huge go-forward with her strong ball carries and is a powerful defender too, helping to bring momentum both with and without the ball.

Her ability is impressive given that she only took up rugby aged 14 when her local club, Salerno, ran a session at her school. She had always been sporty but immediately fell in love with rugby – and progressed fast, moving to Benevento and then Colorno on the club circuit. She also switched positions, going from the backs to the back row.

“Everyone knew I was a little too slow to be in the backs,” she laughs. “For me, back-row is the best role in rugby. You have to be good in defence but good in attack as well. It’s not only tackling but carrying hard, making good passes. I think it’s the most complete role in rugby – this is why I enjoy it.”

Italy captain Giada Franco

Photo bomb: Anna Caplice, Sarah Beckett, Jade Konkel and Giada Franco at a Harlequins shoot (Getty Images)

To continue developing her game, Franco moved to Quins in summer 2019 and believes the back-row competition at the club helped her to improve before she returned to Italy earlier this year.

That’s progress from a personal perspective; Franco is also pleased to see the whole women’s game growing in Italy. Crowd figures are rising, more clubs are involved in 15s leagues and player numbers are on the up, although Franco is pragmatic when saying: “We have to work to make sure the quality is going up as well as the numbers.”

Franco’s quality is not in doubt – and Italy need her to be to the fore for the final rounds of the Six Nations and those all-important World Cup qualifiers.

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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