The Italy flyer got down on one knee after losing to South Africa

It takes something special for an Italy back-three player to steal the limelight from Ange Capuozzo, but that is precisely what Pierre Bruno produced just after the Autumn Nations Series loss to South Africa in November.

Long before the 26-year-old Zebre winger beckoned his partner Jessica down from the stands and onto the playing surface on the pretext of sharing a post-match photograph, the day was already destined to be lodged front and centre in his memory bank.

The game was played in Bruno’s home city, Genoa, in front of a crowd featuring dozens of his friends and family. The stadium itself, the rickety yet wonderfully atmospheric Stadio Luigi Ferraris, had been the scene of plenty of childhood trips with his grandfather, cousins and pals to watch Sampdoria in Serie A action. Then came the proposal with which he took away partner Jessica’s breath, not to mention that of an enthralled live and TV audience.

“I’m quite an emotional person,” he explains. “I had bought the ring a few days previously. After the game, I was riding a wave of enthusiasm thanks to the whole combination of things that day, and here was the person who has been my biggest supporter and who has put up with the most as well. I thought, ‘what better way to show my love than in front of my own people, all my family and friends’. If I hadn’t done it, hadn’t grasped that opportunity, I know I would have regretted it. 

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“To play in your home city, in the stadium that’s also the home of the team you love, with so many people you care about in the stands, some of whom don’t often get the chance to see us play… Deciding to propose to Jessica was the icing on the cake of a great experience.”

Jessica is from Brescia, a city between Milan and Verona. The pair met when Bruno was playing club rugby in Italy’s Top 12 division, with Calvisano. With a laugh, he denies that there was any sense of opportunism in him popping the question in front of so many people, but does admit that he “basically trapped her. A few days previously, she asked if she could come onto the pitch to get a photo together. I thought, ‘this is perfect! Get her down here, pretend that it’s for a photo and go from there!”

Jessica saying yes rounded off a month in which Bruno affirmed himself as a key player in Kieran Crowley’s ever-improving Azzurri side. He scored two tries in the big win over Samoa, touched down again in the historic first success against Australia and more than earned a chance to run out in front of his folks when the world-champion Springboks came to town.

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“That was an objective I had given myself the previous year,” he explains. “If we ended up playing a match in Genoa, I wanted to be on the pitch –not just because that’s where I’m from but because I’d earned my place.

“It was great to get Kieran’s backing to play against both Samoa and Australia and with how those games went, I was able to take the field against South Africa
in Genoa knowing that I deserved it. I was very proud of that.

“If anything, I was a bit too pumped up on the day. I didn’t manage to play at my true level. We decided to go toe-to-toe with them. We could easily have played the game in a different way and probably lost by fewer points (63-21), but we wanted to stick to our guns, take them on and play the game we wanted to play. 

Pierre Bruno

Bruno celebrates with his Italian team-mates after crossing the line for the Azzurri against Samoa (Getty Images)

“It would obviously have been great to come away with another win, but I couldn’t have scripted such a month. Marzio Innocenti, the (Italian federation) president, gave us
a difficult, ambitious target, which was to win two matches. He gave us that after the summer games, where we had that difficult-to-digest loss to Georgia. It was a really difficult moment, that, because we had lost what was the most important game of the summer, but I think that the whole experience really united us as a group.

“We came back in November with Treviso playing well and getting results, Zebre, who had played well at the start of the season, a bit of a wave of enthusiasm, augmented by the guys abroad doing well… Men like Ange at Toulouse, Paolo (Garbisi) at Montpellier. 

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“It’s easy to say it’s an excellent group, but at a certain point you need the victories to show it. There really is a great atmosphere and feeling between players, staff, coaches, Kieran, the people who follow us. There’s lots of internal competition within the squad but it’s a positive competition, not a negative one. It’s something that forces you to get better, firstly for yourself but then also for the benefit of the group. I can only look back on 2022 as a fantastic, incredible year.”

Pierre Bruno

Bruno slides over to score against Samoa in the Autumn Nations Series (Getty Images)

Pierre Bruno: Italy debut

It started in somewhat bizarre fashion, however. With Bruno having made his Italy debut against Uruguay the previous November, his Six Nations bow lasted all of 20 minutes after a red card for Hame Faiva, the replacement hooker, resulted in Crowley’s men having to go to uncontested scrums against Ireland – starting hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi had already gone off injured. That necessitated them losing another man, and so Bruno and Toa Halahifi, the No 8, were sacrificed as Ivan Nemer, the prop, came on. Unsurprisingly, Andy Farrell’s men ran away with it, winning 57-6.

“The first thing I remember about that week is that the war had started in Ukraine,” Bruno recalls. “It was a very strange moment because that was all going on, all over the headlines, and here I was making my Six Nations debut against a great team like Ireland, in a great setting like the Aviva Stadium, a huge day. That was a very strange contrast. 

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“It turned out to be a bit of an unlucky debut of course, in that I had to come off, not because of anything I did but because of that red card. Kieran had to make those changes but it was still an incredible day.”

It had been some time in the making. Bruno’s sporting journey initially came with a football, playing as a striker – “a few goals, very rapid but not great feet” – for local youth teams in the Genoa area, before a dressing-room altercation with a team-mate saw him kicked out of his last club at the age of 12.

“I was a bit of a hothead in those days, but over time I’ve grown and calmed down a bit,” he tells us. “Rugby certainly helped in that process, it gave me scope to vent my frustrations and use up all my energy. Also to learn about respecting the people around you. I’m not saying it’s the only sport that could have done this for me. Sport in general is great for young people. But without rugby I would not be who I am now.”

Bruno’s beginnings in rugby

Bruno was introduced to rugby by Paolo Ricchebono, a coach at the Province dell’Ovest club in Genoa who was there to embrace him before the Springboks game. He progressed to Mogliano – home club of the Garbisi brothers – then Calvisano, where he won two league titles while racking up 32 tries in 53 games. Bruno has proved prolific in the pro ranks as well, even with strugglers Zebre Parma, where his ability to break the line and streak away from cover has long been treasured. 

“I’ve maybe had a different timeline to younger players who are coming through now but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t deserve to,” he says. “We have to remember there have been big changes in Italian rugby. A new president, a new coach, a real generational change. 

“When I was younger, the tendency was to push younger players coming through towards the Top 12 clubs, whereas now they are being launched into our professional teams a lot quicker. 

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“We’re starting to reap the benefits of the work that’s been done. There is a real positivity and enthusiasm about the game, and it’s our job to keep that going: first of all for ourselves but also for the whole movement of Italian rugby. 

“For this Six Nations, the ambition is to win, of course. All the games are hard, against teams of a high level. We just need to focus on ourselves, to put forward the game we’ve been building, and trust the ability of our players.

Pierre Bruno

Pierre Bruno in action for club side Zebre (INPHO)

“Look at our back three. If you’ve got good weapons, it’s right and proper to use them, play the game in a way that brings them to the fore. That’s what I think. We want to continue building on November, and we must bring home a win as well. More than one would be great but we must be realistic. I can be a dreamer and tell you I want to win the Six Nations but there is reality and facts.”

You may have noticed his numerous tattoos. Bruno has a dragon, a tiger, a Buddha, a Japanese god and several others, all of them inked by his father, Maximilian, who has run his own tattoo studio in Genoa since the mid-1990s.

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“I grew up in that whole environment. My dad is covered in tattoos, my mum as well, and it was a natural thing for me to get into as well,” he says, noting that he was also a big fan of snowboarding before his contract forbade it. “I’ve only – I say ‘only’! – done both my arms and my chest, when I was a bit younger. I got my last tattoo a couple of months ago and I think that will be that for me. I started at 18 years old and finished at 26 – the natural rhythm of life!

“You suffer enough in training and on the pitch. You don’t need to go out looking for any more pain!”

This article first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Rugby World magazine.

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