A new breed of Italian rugby: The Origins of Manuel Zuliani

A new breed of Italian rugby: The Origins of Manuel Zuliani

Located in Northern Italy, the town of Castelfranco Veneto is largely known for its magnificent medieval castle whose walls stretch around the Old Town centre.

It is also the birthplace of one of Italy’s rising young stars: Manuel Zuliani.

Since signing for Benetton full-time in 2021, Zuliani has emerged as a standout talent from the upcoming crop of Italian players who many are seeing as a ‘Golden Generation’.

Born in April 2000, Manuel Zuliani grew up in the nearby town of Paese where he learnt to play. It's coincidental that only a few months before his birth, Italian rugby entered a new era with their inclusion into the Six Nations. Despite their immediate success in beating reigning Five Nations champions Scotland, the Italian nation side (also known as the Azzuri) didn’t claim another victory in the tournament for two years. Since their inclusion Italian success has been sporadic, and they have avoided the wooden spoon (i.e last place) on only six occasions.

Growing up, Zuliani continued to turn out for his local amateur side Rugby Paese’s youth team - known as ‘El Canguri’ (The Kangaroos). It was at Paese that his talent was first identified. Whilst there, his youth coach suggested that he could have a similar career to that of New Zealand legend Richie McCaw – a comment which inspired Zuliani to adopt McCaw as his rugby idol.

Recognising his skill with the oval ball, Zuliani was appointed captain of the Benetton U18 team and was invited to attend the Italian rugby federation’s prestigious ‘Ivan Francescato’ National Academy. Named after the legendary Italian scrum-half who suddenly passed in 1999, the academy is part of one of the most impressive youth set-ups in world rugby.

Under the guidance of Irishman Stephen Aboud, Italian rugby’s elite player pathway was revolutionised during his stint as ‘head of technical direction of players and coaches’ from 2016 to 2023. Their talent identification programme identifies the top 130 under-17 and under-18 players across the nation who leave home to attend specially selected schools in four regions of Italy for two years. The best 35 are then invited to attend the F.I.R academy for a further year.

Following his time at the academy, Zuliani joined Mogliano – a professional outfit playing in the Peroni Top10, Italy’s highest domestic league. He was soon appointed as a ‘permit player’ and was loaned out to Benetton Treviso for the 2020-21 season. He quickly impressed, making 15 appearances for the Lions before being offered a 2-year contract in 2021.

Since then, Zuliani has exploded onto the Italian rugby scene and emerged as one of the top talents in Italian rugby’s ‘Golden Generation’. Alongside compatriots such as Paolo Garbisi and Michele Lamaro, Zuliani is part of an incredibly talented and youthful backbone to the Azzuri.

Though individuals such as Ange Capuozzo (World Rugby’s ‘Breakthrough Player of the Year’ in 2022) may have made more headlines, the Italian player pathway has borne fruit through a series of successful U20 Six Nations and world championship campaigns.

Victories over Wales in the Six Nations in 2022 and their first ever win over Australia that same year have hinted at the potential of the young Azzuri, even before the arrival of Zuliani and rising stars such as Tommaso Menoncello and Federico Mori.

In the URC, Benetton are reaping the benefits of this improved system with Zuliani taking a centre stage role. Since 2021, he has made over 50 appearances for Benetton and quickly cemented himself as one of the most impactful players in the URC today.

Zuliani is known as one of the league’s best and most relentless tacklers. Not only is his 90% tackle success rate higher than the average URC flanker (86.3%), but his 10.3% of tackles which are classified as ‘dominant’ is over double the average (5%).

He bolsters this with an impressive ability to win back possession for his team. His average turnovers p/g rate of 1.4 is once again double the expected average for URC flankers (0.7).

Last year at only 23, Zuliani was named by the Italian newspaper Il Gazzettino as the Italian player of the year. This year, Zuliani has been ranked 2nd in the URC’s Top 100.

It is poetic that the town renowned for its incredible defensive structures has produced one of the URC best defenders, but Manuel Zuliani’s origins and his career today speaks to something more significant than the latest in a long-line of impressive Italian back-rowers.

Zuliani’s impact on both Benetton and the Azzuri highlights the developing talent within the Italian game and suggests that the dreams of the Italian ‘Golden Generation’ may not be far-fetched.

Born at the start of a new era of Italian rugby, Zuliani and his compatriots might well be signalling the start of an even better one.

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