A city, Rugby, a student, William Webb Ellis, and a football game. It was 1823 and that student, after taking the ball in his hand, started running towards the door and deposited it on the ground. It was like illumination or maybe just a legend: rugby was said to come from all this.
Even today, the trophy destined for the world champions of this discipline is named after the memory of Ellis.
Two hundred years of a sport, therefore, in continuous evolution and in full diffusion, years in which we went from a regulation that prohibited professionalism to one that in practice stimulates it. A turning point came only recently, in 1995, after the World Cup.
Easy to see rugby as a crowd of giants. The rules seem indecipherable, but you just have to go just below the surface of appearances to discover a pearl of unique beauty, a dance when the ball passes from hand to hand, a fight when you throw yourself against the opponent’s wall and you must do everything to protect the oval and give it to your companions.
Strategy and support, sweat, suffering, and respect. Rugby is democratic, it gives space to everyone: pylons, opening medians, second lines and extremes are respectively the physical support in the scrum, the brain and the speed, the height to climb to the sky in the touches and the courage to stop in extremis the opponent’s attack.
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Precisely in honor of the beauty of this sport, today we focus on five people, five rugby players who played it at the highest levels. Five samples to admire for different reasons.
It is difficult to make a ranking, impossible to compare them, but we have chosen them for some reasons that we hope you will share. They are Jonah Lomu, François Pienaar, David Campese, Mario Battaglini (Maci), Sergio Parisse.
1. Jonah Lomu
One hundred nineteen kilograms in motion, a mountain of muscles capable of running a hundred meters in just over ten seconds. Lomu was, according to many, the strongest rugby player of all time, a rare and inimitable talent.
However, his short life has not always been easy. Childhood is spent away from his parents, in Tonga to be precise. He returns to Auckland while still a child, but as he grows he collides with the harsh reality of street fights.
He lives on the edge, is sitting on the edge of a cliff, but sport, and specifically rugby, saves him. On the other hand, Lomu was one of the youngest players to make his debut in the first team of the All Blacks, the strongest and most titled team on the planet.
His technique together with his speed, despite the impressive size, has made this athlete a practically unstoppable wing. Its media impact has facilitated the rise and worldwide fame of rugby.
Now imagine Lomu taking the field and performing a tribal Maori dance, the spectacular Haka. The words of this war rite echo throughout the stadium, the heavy steps approaching the opponent make the ground tremble under your feet. The All Blacks are said to win much of their games thanks to this ceremony.
Power and poetry
Seeing Lomu in action is pure spectacle, his goal in the 1995 World Cup against England is a mix of poetry and magic, impressive, at the limit of the human. In eight seconds he detonates all the anger of disastrous adolescence, adolescence from which he has just emerged: he is only twenty years old and is already a legend of the sport.
Lomu is rugby like Pele is football, a world icon that anyone should know. Unfortunately, however, life has been truly ungenerous with him. At the age of twenty-four, he must stop to undergo a kidney transplant due to a very serious disease.
After the ordeal of the disease, he tries to return to the field, but it is no longer the black hurricane of the past. He will die at forty years of age due to pulmonary thrombosis, a probable consequence of his pathology.
Some books speak of this sample. I like to report The Black Hurricane: Jonah Lomu, the dead life and goals of an All Black, a beautiful book that, starting from its difficult origins, traces its exploits.
2. Francois Pienaar
In rugby, the captain is said to be selected directly by the players themselves. There are no impositions from above, the captain in rugby is the coach on the field. Everyone has extreme respect for him: the captain is, therefore, the leader of the team.
François Pienaar is the captain of the Springboks, the selection of South Africa, in those very famous world championships of 1995. The same world championships in which a very young Lomu showed his value to the world.
François Pienaar – white among whites in a country scourged by apartheid – basically becomes the captain of a nation, even before a selection of rugby. The story, on the other hand, is well told in the beautiful Clint Eastwood Invictus film.
Mandela finds in Pienaar the keystone to bring together whites and blacks in a country deeply divided by racism. He uses a sport practiced by whites to make his black brothers understand that it is time to lay down their weapons. Pienaar lends itself faithfully to this strategy and in this gesture, all its magnificence lies.
The final with New Zealand
New Zealand is perhaps the strongest team ever. We have just written about Lomu. The All Blacks annihilate the strong British and earn the final, a final that will probably remain as the most exciting and hard-fought ever, despite the few goals.
That June 24, 1995, at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, there is something that goes beyond human understanding, cosmic energy that makes the Springboks invincible. Who actually wins the cup.
Pienaar is the catalyst for this energy, he is the one who allowed all this. The captain managed to keep a group of rugby players together, he managed to make a dream come true, he united a people that had always been divided.
Nelson Mandela said: “It was with François Pienaar that rugby became the pride of an entire country”.
3. David Campese
Another rugby player, another first in the class. David Campese was certainly the largest of the Wallabies, the very strong Australian selection.
Campese is the second-best scorer of all time with sixty-four national team goals. Equipped with impressive speed and progression, he also had a game vision that made him a beautiful and concrete player.
World champion in 1991 he was the pioneer of rugby professionalism. His goose step, appreciable in some videos available on the net, characterized him and made him practically unique in his kind, very difficult to tackle. He had an ability to evade opposing defense comparable to that of a few others.
His game vision and team spirit completed the picture of a great player, capable of making Petrarca Rugby, one of the most successful clubs in Italy, winning three league titles in a row.
Between Italy and Australia
Campese played twelve months a year – thanks to the difference in the calendars between the two hemispheres – in Australia when the Italian championship was stopped and in Italy when the Australian one was resting.
He is considered the symbol of the Australian national team. Although in rugby there is no custom to indicate the team leaders, contrary to what happens with football (as with “Maradona’s Argentina”, for example), that perhaps was really Campese’s Australia.
However, this name does not want to diminish this athlete and label him as selfish and lonely. There are several archive videos in which Campese exploits a vulnerability of the defense but then passes the ball to a partner on the side, better placed than him, effectively giving the team a goal.
Rugby more than any other sport is a team sport and individualisms never pay. Campese was absolutely no exception to this rule, but, you know, the charisma is a completely different story, and those who have it cannot fail to fascinate others.
4. Mario Battaglini (Maci)
Now we move to another era, in a very distant time. We go back to 1936 for Maci’s debut in rugby, at the registry office Mario Battaglini, a colossus of one hundred and five kilograms moving with a force equal to that of strongmen. “Maci”, in fact.
Battaglini was born in Rovigo on 20 October 1919 in an era when professionalism in rugby was just an idea from science fiction lovers. The goals scored, at that time, did not give you five points but only one. And an injury, which today would heal in a few weeks, could put an end to anyone’s career and dreams of glory.
Battaglini’s rugby was pure passion. To live you had to work hard and the time to play was the remaining time. Rovigo was his city, his beloved Rovigo with which he won three of the five badges won in Italy (the other two arrived in Milan with the Amatori, a glorious and multi-titled team ).
War, post-war period and myth
The national debut came in 1940, but there was war and nobody could be dispensed. He was ordained for the Russian campaign in 1941, he returned alive two years later.
After the peace, he was called to play in France. Considered the year, 1946, one cannot help but imagine how strong this athlete was. Advertising was difficult: the only showcases were international competitions. And he was among the first Italian rugby players to play abroad.
Maci was endowed with an extraordinary strength: his kick was a sentence regardless of the distance from the posts, his charisma was undisputed. And from the 50s onwards he became a player and coach on the field.
Battaglini, on the other hand, was a pioneer of rugby in Italy, a champion that few know. Among other things, a pearl told with passion in the beautiful book by Marco Pastoresi The legend of Maci. Life, death, and miracles of Battaglini, the strongman of rugby, which is worth recovering.
5. Sergio Parisse
Another captain, our captain: Sergio Parisse is the captain of the Italian national team, Argentine by birth but Italian at heart.
He is considered one of the best active players in the world and is considered the best Italian player ever. He played in France and was one of the architects of the historic 20 to 18 victory against South Africa on 19 November 2016.
Unparalleled to the previous ones for various reasons, however, Parisse deserves to enter this ranking because it is the symbol of this Italy that wants to be with the best in the world. The road is still long and perhaps the gap to be filled with the other big ones on the planet is still huge, but the path is taken.
The symbol of Italy in today’s rugby
The history of this sport still sees us at a disadvantage and the investments that are made in rugby are not yet at a level that can do more.
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Parisse in all this, however, is the symbol of the fact that one can get excited even by losing. Equipped with a superfine technique, he is a tireless tackler and is one of the best interpreters of off-load, the spectacular passage made just before touching the ground following a tackle immediately.
A very effective technique because it accelerates the game at a time when, on the other hand, one would expect a small pause for the formation of a ruck , the crowd that forms on the ground after a tackle.
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