One story which has been developing in recent weeks is the ongoing saga surrounding rugby league in Italy.
A rebel Italian rugby league governing body, the Lega Italiana Rugby Football League, has been making increasing amounts of noise over the last couple of years, as they strive to create a truly Italian framework in which the sport can flourish.
Those involved with the rebel body hold a deep and simmering resentment for the Australian-Italians of the official body, the FIRL, which organised the Italy World Cup team in 2013.
The main man of the Lega Italiana Rugby Football League (LIRFL) is Pierluigi Gentile, a Rome-based businessman and former Italy rugby union Sevens international.
He also played professional rugby union in Australia and Scotland, as well as in Italy. After he finished his playing career, he fell in love with rugby league, and began to work with the FIRL.
He ended his time with the official body in 2009, a split that was apparently quite acrimonious.
Nevertheless, he states that his ultimate aim is for the two rugby league bodies in Italy to unify.
“We want the two governing bodies to unite in the best interests of Italian rugby league but that must be done with both democracy and growth at the forefront of our thinking,” he said.
“People accuse me of being a rebel. They are right. Only by challenging the existing order can we bring about change and this applies to rugby league as much as anything else.
“What is happening in Italy could be a template for other countries. It will not fit the existing rugby league superpowers but, if we are to move the game forward we need to recapture a bit of the spirit that led to the formation of the game all those years ago.”
Nevertheless, despite those noble sentiments, the Rugy League International Federation (RLIF), currently growing some teeth with new CEO David Collier in charge, has been unequivocal in its rejection of the proposed link-up between the rugby codes in Italy.
A statement issued on May 8 read:
“The RLIF categorically rejects any infringement on the sovereignty of rugby league and consequently considers FIR’s action to be illegitimate. The RLIF has sole responsibility for setting rugby league’s universal standards, laws, regulations and practices, which are disseminated through its regional confederations and members. In Italy the sole legitimate authority for rugby league is the Federazione Italiana Rugby League.”
Striving for recognition
That RLIF statement would seem to throw a real spanner in the works of the rebels’ dreams. There is much that is sensible and considered in the reaction of the RLIF, though.
There is a notable lack of real rugby league people backing the rebels, too. While Ikram Butt of BARA and Garry Schofield have give the project public backing, previously it was rugby union stars like Serge Betsen who have given the project their blessing.
Gentile insists that the link-up is needed, though, as the official, RLIF-sanctioned Italian governing body has little or no cultural understanding of Italy, nor is their influence in Italy strong enough to make a real difference.
“I was surprised to be given such responsibility from the start but I soon recognized that there were serious problems with how the game was being governed,” he said.
“It culminated in the phenomenal performances and results of the Italian team in the 2013 World Cup. The team was almost entirely comprised of NRL players who had little or no experience of Italy as a nation and could not speak the language.
“Their official launch took place in Sydney and they didn’t even stop off in Italy en route to the tournament.
“Sure, they might have had Italian ancestry but the results received no coverage in the Italian media and their participation came despite being assured that the best home grown players, that I had played a part in nurturing, would form the majority of the squad.
“For a sport to grow here, the Italian people have to feel a connection to the athletes representing them. There was no connection.
“In Italy, as in many nations, we have thousands of rugby players who just want to participate in the sport for twelve months a year. They are not aware of the cultural split that has existed since 1895. They just want to get an oval ball in their hands and run with it.
“The FIRL faced another major obstacle. The FIR, the governing body for Italian rugby union, was recognized by the influential Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) as the only overarching organization with responsibility for ‘rugby’.
“For a sport to be taken seriously here, it requires CONI accreditation and recognition. It unlocks funding streams and leads to a much higher media profile but the sports in question must demonstrate that they are democratic, truly national and have a clear plan for growth in participation.
“None of these factors could be applied to the FIRL and despite many attempts by myself to build bridges and reunify the sport through meetings involving the international governing body, it was clear that we were on a very different path.”
Care and caution
The LIRL insists in its media releases that the link between the codes is so that league can take advantage of better development, administration and marketing structures which union in Italy provides.
They insist that their approach is ‘revolutionary’ and is not intended to stab rugby league in the back.
While, superficially, it looks like the link with union could help boost participation in Italy, and maybe graft some administration structures into place, there are some fairly major issues with this partnership.
One thing which should be of great concern to every rugby league person, whether they are a ‘traditionalist’ or not, is the glib way in which the link-up with union is addressed.
There seems to be a desire to sweep away 120 years of history, and quite bitter history at that, simply for the expedient of playing a few games of rugby league when the rugby union season is closed.
The two codes are separate sports. Rugby league is not a summer version of rugby union, but a sport which has many cherished and fine traditions of its own.
Union has shown in the past that it cannot be trusted to behave as nobly and ethically as it would like to think it does, most recently in the UAE, in these matters.
Pierluigi Gentile clearly thinks that the union bodies in Italy can, and indeed must be, trusted, for the sake of the sport.
“Whilst we are part of the FIR, we are independent with our own management structure, fundraising and marketing activities,” he exaplained.
“The FIR plays no part in rugby league in Italy other than providing a pool of over 77,000 rugby players from 3000 plus clubs keen to improve their skills and play this great sport as often as possible.
“The Lega Italiana Rugby Football League, aptly named the Revolution League, is growing fast with more and more clubs opting to come under our umbrella while the FIRL appears to have stood completely still.
“We have a clear vision and plans to develop rugby league at junior and youth level. We are player focused, referee focused and coach focused as well as being able to generate sponsorship and a growing media profile.
“We don’t care how long it takes to get an Italian team into the Rugby League World Cup but, when we do, we want it to be a proper Italy team developed from the talent within our borders.”
Former Great Britain stand-off Garry Schofield, who was in attendance over the weekend at the BARA v Italy ‘international’ clarly thinks that the partnership has some merit.
“We have to do what is right to develop and grow the great sport of rugby league,” he said.
“Sometimes nations will develop in a way that doesn’t fit in with our existing way of thinking but we have to have empathy with, and understanding of their own culture and sporting governance.
“This is the case in Italy and I wish Pierluigi and his team the very best of luck for the future. They are undoubtedly building something here that will only do good for the game of rugby league, regardless of how it flies in the face of tradition.”
All this talk of revolution is a red herring, though. A revolution doesn’t occur when oppressed people decide after a century of freedom to get back into bed with the bastards who screwed them over in the first place.
That’s not a revolution at all, that’s a counter-revolution, and everyone involved with this adventure should tread very carefully indeed.
A resolution is what is needed here, one that is sensitive to our game’s history and traditions, and not one that is simply expedient for short-term development. Real revolutionaries know all about the dangers and potential uses of ‘entryism’, after all.
It is vital that rugby league retains its autonomy in a period of steady international growth for the sport. Losing any of that autonomy to a code that has shown itself as predatory, repressive and downright inimical to our interests in the past would be a disaster from which Italian rugby league might never recover.
Pierluigi Gentile has now replied to some of the issues raised in this article. Read what he had to say HERE.