A Rugby Evolution
Mini Titans take to the field
FERMIGNANO, Italy – It’s a cloudless Saturday morning, wet dew still covering the grass. Organizers are quickly setting up various sports equipment within the Sports Center of Ca’Vanzino to get ready for a daylong event called Fermignano in Gioco. About 600 boys and girls from the local schools of the town eagerly line up and are chattering outside the gate.
At exactly 8 o’clock the gates open and children flood in. Divided into age groups ranging from 6 to 12, they separate and head to their designated stations to start the day.
Each station has something different to offer and, as the youth rotate through, they get to experience something new at each turn: dancing, karate, or gymnastics are just a few of the available activities. But it’s the mini rugby station that is filled with nonstop action.
With soccer being the number one sport in Italy, most of these students have never played rugby. It’s not offered as a school sport. But after a few drills they quickly catch on and begin to enjoy the game. Running and tackling, catching and throwing, laughing and crying, and before you know it their time is up and they’re off to the next station.
Many leave with a few bumps and bruises, which will eventually fade away, but what remains vivid is the new exciting game they’ve just tackled.
Some of these students will want to experience that rowdy game they call rugby again, and Giuseppe Faustini, the president of the Titans rugby team in nearby Urbino is counting on it.
Faustini founded the men’s rugby team in 2010 and just recently expanded its program to add Urbino’s first youth team, called the mini Titans. The new team is the next step in the evolution of the Titans and is designed to create the next generation of athletes.
“I regret I didn’t have the possibility to learn when I was their age; I could have been a way better player” says Federico, the captain of the men’s team.
Italy has 31,604 boys and girls under the age of 13 who play rugby compared to the United States, which has 329,086 players – about 10 times as many – participating in the sport.
The Italian Rugby Federation (FIR), a national association founded in 1928, has adopted a policy aimed at promoting youth rugby. FIR understands the importance of fostering a breeding-ground for new players, so the policy requires every adult rugby team to have its own mini team or face a penalty.
In order to avoid being penalized 4 points during championship games, almost every adult team is trying their best to promote youth rugby and schools have become the target for recruitment. Alessandro Guerra, now a mini Titan himself, was introduced to the sport when the men’s rugby team visited his school. “He brought home a flier from school with information about the rugby team,” says his mother Noemi Saltarelli. “This was the first time he was actually interested in a sport, so I got excited and signed him up.”
So far 14 of the 20 adult teams in the region of Marche, including the Titans, have succeeded at starting their own mini teams.
The mini Titans are coached by two of the players from the men’s team, Alberto Bottari and Federico Ambrosini. During the past four months they have held practice every week at the Varea field in Urbino, passing on their rugby skills to the next generation of athletes.
The minis program is for players as young as six and is open to both boys and girls. Though it is a co-ed sport, no girls have yet to join. “Unfortunately it is quite difficult to gain girls because their parents are not familiar with rugby and they see it as a ‘men only’ sport,” says Federico.
Rugby may have a reputation as a rough sport, but safety is stressed. “Yes, I worry about my son getting hurt because there is risk involved in all sports,” says Noemi Saltarelli, “but at this age the contact isn’t as severe and the trainers do a good job at teaching them how to play safely.” The program also aims to help the players build confidence and stay fit. “Rugby has helped me become stronger, lose weight, and stay in shape,” says 10-year old Matieo Dorelli.
Thus far the mini Titans have played in two games against the teams of Fano and Montecchio: victory in one game, a loss in the other. Coach Federico is excited about their progress: “I feel amazed! They learn so fast and they improve after every game. I feel like I’m building the future of rugby in Urbino and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Both the men’s team and the mini team celebrated their successful seasons with a barbeque before breaking for summer vacation. The parents grilled the meat and prepared the food, while the two teams played a game of touch rugby, the boys against the men.
The mini Titans resume formal practice in September to start their first full season. They have a summer full of optimism to kick around: “It is hard to make predictions about the future because we are still a very new team. But I hope that the youth team will bring more attention to our program,” says team president Faustini, “I hope that it will grow as a passion, because rugby is a beautiful sport.”