Tough times on the sidelines have done nothing to curb the exciting full-back’s sense of adventure, writes Mark Palmer
Italy’s Matteo Minozzi: “We have to use this Six Nations to relaunch”
The game of rugby is all about pace for Italy’s Matteo Minozzi, with his speed of thought and execution a joy to watch and a nightmare to defend against.
Success came to him quickly, too, with the Wasps full-back going from scrabbling around the foothills of the Eccellenza domestic league to the shortlist for Six Nations Player of the Championship in less than a year. Minozzi had an extraordinary time of it in 2018, becoming the first Italian to score in four consecutive tournament matches as he brought a splash of vibrant colour to Conor O’Shea’s then charges.
Sadly for Minozzi, there was to be an abrupt halt as well. The sickening knee injury he suffered whilst playing for Zebre against Southern Kings that August saw him miss the whole of the 2019 Six Nations, and it wasn’t until Italy’s Rugby World Cup warm-up matches that he was fit to make a return.
A couple of tries in Japan – against Namibia and Canada – suggested that he was straight back in the groove, but the 23-year-old insists that although his body is now ready for top-level rugby, the healing process continues.
“In the first month after the injury (he sustained extensive ligament and tendon damage and required two operations), I thought I might never get back playing, but then it becomes about getting back to the player you were before. Even now, every time I step on the pitch, I still have that fear of not being able to do the things I did previously. It’s about trying to live the same emotions I did before and recover the same feelings of confidence. It’s a step-by-step journey.”
Attending any of last year’s Six Nations games in person was a step too far for Minozzi, who instead watched on television as the Azzurri finished bottom of the table for the fourth year in a row. What he had mapped out as a campaign of personal consolidation and collective progress became a story of thwarted ambition.
“My aim before the injury was to prove myself again, to show to myself and the world of rugby that I could have another Six Nations along the same lines. It was very strange to then be looking in at things from the outside.
“Honestly, for a while after the injury I didn’t really want to watch any rugby and I pulled the plug a bit. But this is a new year with new opportunities for me. I want to get back to the player I was as quickly as possible, and the Six Nations would be a great place for me to do that.”
Italy have not won a tournament match since beating Scotland at Murrayfield back in February 2015, and their barren run in Rome extends a further two years. O’Shea was contracted through to the end of the 2020 championship but resigned his post in November, with Franco Smith, the South African and former Benetton Treviso and Cheetahs head coach, handed the national reins on an interim basis.
Minozzi, who has 16 caps, insists that results under the man who first brought him into the squad in 2017 when he won the domestic league with Calvisano do not reflect the progress that has been made in improving depth and mentality. The flyer explains the foundational work.
“I think the right bases are in place and that we’ll now begin to see the fruit of the work Conor has been doing for the last two or three years. We have to use this Six Nations to relaunch, to get going again and show we’re a team that wants to compete and continue to get better. A team that wants to beat any side it comes across or at least tries to.
“In terms of the coaches, I’ll always be grateful to Conor for what he did for me. In the year I was out, he stayed close and always let me know he was there for me. From the moment he gave me my debut, he always believed in me and trusted me.
“On a technical level, in those two years he always played me and never placed any restrictions or limits on how I play. I’m someone who always tries to play my game and enjoy myself, and Conor gave me the freedom to do that.”
It was a childhood dream of Minozzi’s to run out in the English Premiership. That wish was granted last summer when Wasps brought him in to help fill the gap left by the departures of Willie le Roux and Elliot Daly.
Minozzi has no qualms about being the follow-up act to this much-vaunted pair, insisting that his main motivation is to repay the faith director of rugby Dai Young showed in pushing through the deal when the Italian full-back was still mid-recovery.
“When I signed, I had only just started running again,” Minozzi says. “The belief they had in me, not knowing how I would come back from that injury, meant a huge amount. It wasn’t hard to choose Wasps. They’re one of the most highly decorated clubs in England with one of the biggest histories. In the last few years there haven’t been those major wins. But it’s a young group with strong players and bit by bit we can build something that allows us to try and win again.
“I know that in my role last year there were players like Daly and le Roux. I know there are big expectations of me, but it is not something that gets me down or that I shy away from. I know what kind of player I am and I know what I can do.
“That’s what I wanted when coming here: being able to measure myself against the best players and seeing where I fit in. It’s a great challenge and one that I’m embracing. From the first training session, I saw that the pace and level was much higher than what I was used to.
“Being out last year was probably the toughest challenge I’ve had as a player and even more so as a person. But it helped me appreciate the things I perhaps took for granted, like being able to step out onto the pitch every weekend and to train. Even the simple act of running. For three or four months I couldn’t do that. I’m more aware now of what every day means and how to make sure I get the most out of it.”
Minozzi may still adjusting to the differences between life in Coventry and life in Parma but the nature and quality of the rugby is exactly what the speedster expected.
Delving deeper into the differences in competitions he has played in, Minozzi adds: “Compared to the Pro14, it’s more physical, the defences are more solid and aggressive, and all the teams are strong. They can all beat each other and they can all lose to each other as well. That makes it a harder league. I’ve always thought the Premiership was the toughest competition in the world and it’s living up to that.”
Minozzi hails from Padua, the northern Italian city which has long been an oval-ball stronghold and where his father, Umberto, was part of the great Petrarca Padova side that won four straight Serie A titles in the 1980s with David Campese on the wing.
Umberto was himself a back-three man, playing more out wide than at full-back. He also suffered a nasty knee injury, and after surgery to repair his anterior cruciate ligament proved only partially successful, he was forced to retire aged 24.
Still, it was he who introduced his boy to the game and indeed coached him for a time in the Valsugana juniors, where Minozzi was initially seen playing at fly-half.
“When I went to Calvisano, they put me at full-back and it’s a place where I found myself right at home and could give the best of myself,” he recalls. “As a kid, I began playing rugby just to have fun and I think it’s my strength that I’ve continued to live it like that. Having fun on the pitch has got me where I am and I’m not going to stop now.”
With frustrations to make up for and energy to burn, you get the impression that Minozzi is just getting started.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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