Tommaso Benvenuti realised his childhood dream of playing for his country on Saturday when he made his senior international debut on the wing for Italy in their 22-16 defeat by Argentina in Verona.
Long regarded as a Test player in the making in Italian rugby circles, the 19-year-old was handed his debut by coach Nick Mallett after some impressive performances for Benetton Treviso in the Magners League and Heineken Cup.
Four tries in two appearances in the Heineken Cup – against English champions Leicester Tigers and former Top 14 winners Perpignan no less – suggest that Benvenuti will be around for many years to come, something Italy captain Sergio Parisse concurs with.
“He is a very, very good player and he is still very young,” Parisse told Total Rugby Radio. “I think he has a lot of potential to be a very, very good player and he is working hard. We saw him a couple of years ago and he had all the stuff then to be a very good player.”
Benvenuti had already worn the Italian jersey at age grade level, playing for the Under 20s in the IRB Junior World Championship in Japan in 2009 and then captaining the side to the title in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy earlier this year in Russia.
A learning experience
The fifth player to graduate to the Azzurri ranks after playing in a Junior World Championship, Benvenuti has fond memories of his time playing in the tournaments and the impact they have had on his fledgling career.
“Both tournaments have been important for me in my rugby life,” Benvenuti – who follows in the footsteps of Andrea Bacchetti, Roberto Quartaroli, Simone Favaro and Riccardo Bocchino – told Total Rugby Radio last week.
“It made me compare myself with very, very good young talent. We played against South Africa [in 2009] and I see lots of those guys playing Super 14 this year. It has been a great opportunity for understanding where you are.
“I would probably not [have been as confident stepping up to the senior team without that experience] as I am now because it helps to put yourself in an international match environment.
“In Italy until some years ago we didn’t have so many matches with that high standard and level of quick ball and stuff like that, so it means you can taste the very good rugby [at a young age].”
Italy dropped out of the Junior World Championship after finishing 13th in 2009, but were already guaranteed their place at the 2011 event as tournament hosts. Benvenuti, though, was determined they would not return to the prestigious event merely as hosts.
Growing the game in Italy
“It was a very good moment to win the Trophy,” admitted Benvenuti, who led Italy by example throughout and scored two tries in the final victory over Japan. “We were enthusiastic about that win.
“Italy is hosting the Junior World Championship in 2011 and we wanted to come back into that like the winning country and not like the hosting country who is playing simply by that office.”
The 77th player to follow the pathway from Junior World Championship to the Test arena, Benvenuti believes the 2011 tournament will help rugby reach out to new audiences in Italy, both in terms of attracting fans and youngsters to the game.
“It is a great moment for Italy,” insisted Benvenuti of the 12-team tournament, to be played in Treviso, Rovigo and Padova in the north of the country from 10-26 June.
“Especially for the people who don’t know rugby very well to see and to understand how rugby is played outside of Italy, to be able to compare the Italy standard to the other countries.
“It is also a good opportunity for the clubs in those cities to play a part in the organisation and also for the people who will come from all over the world and all over Italy to see the tournament.
“I think it will be a good opportunity for Italian rugby.”