Italy and Serbia face a European Cup relegation shoot-out in Maesteg on Sunday morning (kick off 10.30), determined to remain at this level.
Both nations graduated through their success in the European Shield, Serbia in 2007 and Italy succeeding them for the past two seasons but, with France entering the 2010 European Cup, one of them is set to drop back into the tier below.
Despite the pair having received something of an education at this level, with heavy defeats to more established nations, both are convinced that the exposure and experience has been vital, on and off the field.
Italian rugby league president Tiziano Franchini has been delighted with his nation’s participation in the rugbyleague.com European Cup, classifying it as “Year Zero” in Italy’s resurgent bid to become a rugby league stronghold.
Franchini, who has led the Italian rugby league from its Paduan base since 2004, did not need to think twice when the Rugby League European Federation offered the Azzuri a place in the tournament following Russia’s late withdrawal – and he is adamant that the alacrity with which the Federazione Italiana di Rugby League seized upon the chance was the right move.
“The European Cup has been the best exposure we have ever had in four years of developing,” said Franchini.
“It has been a positive experience in terms of media, culture, players and for the whole country. We thank the RLEF for the opportunity because we have made a lot of steps forward in rugby league development.”
“In the last month we developed relationships that we never had the chance to before and we never believed we could establish.”
Chief among them is a burgeoning link with national airline carrier Alitalia who have been present at both group games, along with Italian embassy and military officials.
Alessandro Sannino, General Manager Alitalia, Levant which covers the Middle East, took particular interest in the match against Lebanon in Tripoli.
“All the Alitalia team there were so glad and proud of this event especially during the National Anthem of Italy when all players put their right hand on the heart on the Alitalia brand” he commented.
“We will be honoured to continue our partnership and see the national rugby league team as a vehicle of culture and strong positive values.”
In addition to corporate relationships, the FIRL feels its administration will improve after the European Cup experience.
“Being in the European Cup allowed us to fund raise as much as possible and the most important thing that we learned is that if we want to be competitive we need to act and be like professionals” continued Franchini.
His priority is an enhanced domestic programme for 2010 including representative player camps, with one eye on the 2010 European Cup.
“2010 is going to be a critical year for the FIRL, we have touched with our hands the professional level and need to stay there.”