Antonio Pavanello Exclusive: Benetton's General Director on Italy's improvements and striving for success

Benetton are eyeing a place in the last eight of the Challenge Cup this weekend
©Benetton Rugby

Last month, Ireland lifted consecutive Six Nations titles, Wales were handed their first wooden spoon in 21 years, and England looked to have clicked in their final two fixtures against the Irish and French.

But the story of the tournament was Italy.

Little was expected of the Azzurri coming into the championships following their poor World Cup campaign, as they conceded 96 points to New Zealand and 64 to France, crashing out in the pool stages.

Yet five months later - and under the guidance of new boss Gonzalo Quesada - they produced their best performance in their Six Nations history, despite finishing fifth.

And according to Benetton Rugby’s General Director, Antonio Pavanello, they will soon be challenging for Six Nations, European and domestic titles if the nation continues with their development plans.

But how have Italy managed to build an identity and belief?

The former second-row claimed it has been a long process to get to this point.

He said: “Players have learned to play at the highest level from the age of 16 inside our academies around Italy. We have three in Treviso, Rome, and Milan.

“This helps the young players experience the life of a professional, and it helps the Under-20s perform.

“It is a very good pathway, and once at the senior level, they just need to get the experience at the URC [United Rugby Championship] level as they already have the skills, physicality, and technique because they have learned them from inside this system.”

The Italian Rugby Federation realised the gap was getting bigger between them and other Tier One nations at all levels, and with the appointment of Conor O’Shea in 2016, there was a complete restructure of Italian rugby.

And while having to go through a few tough years of recent and constant questions about their participation in the Six Nations, in 2024, they have seen the fruits of their labour.

The youth system has been important, but for this talent to develop, Pavanello believes they need opportunities at the highest club level possible.

He said: “Only in this way, with the Italian players performing and winning in the leagues and European competitions. So, it is important that we continue growing the two franchises [Benetton and Zebre], with the Under-20s continuing to win with the Italian players at the international level.

“For us to win, we need Benetton to remain at the top end of the URC for many years consistently, and if we achieve that, then Italy will perform better.”

And like Ireland, Italy have identified club rugby as their route to success at the international level.

Before the Six Nations, Benetton had been challenging towards the summit of the URC and had topped their Challenge Cup pool.

Their form has dropped off slightly and the club now sit just outside the play-off positions, but Pavanello believes Benetton have an outside chance of silverware this season.

Pavanello said: “I’m positive now that when we recollect all the players from the Six Nations, I believe we have a good chance to reach the play-off of the URC, and then we will try to go as far as possible.

“We play the Lions in the Round of 16 in the Challenge Cup, and if we win that game, we will most importantly play the quarter-final at home. So, it is looking positive for both competitions.”

Zebre Parma and Benetton have qualified for the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup, and the Treviso side have a chance of the URC play-offs, which would allow an Italian side to qualify for the Champions Cup for the first time since the 2019-20 season.

This would be of significant financial value to Benetton and Italian rugby, allowing them to develop the game further in the country. According to Pavanello, success could potentially allow them to expand rugby outside the North of Italy, the nation’s traditional heartland of the sport.

The 41-year-old said: “We will have to get experience at this level [Champions Cup] as it is completely different from the URC and the Challenge Cup. But if we continue to recruit in the manner that we have and keep hold of our best players, then I’m pretty sure that we could do some good stuff in the Champions Cup.

"Financially, it will be good because in the Champions Cup you are playing the biggest clubs around Europe, so in terms of revenue from the stadium for the home matches, it will be better.

“I know the Union is trying to do something in the other parts of Italy, but at the moment it is quite difficult.

“But obviously, once we identify the right strategy to try and grow the sport in the other parts of Italy, it should improve.”

Italy have had many false dawns in the past, but nothing has come of them. The 23-cap Italian Pavanello knows all too well, as he was on the pitch when they beat Ireland in the Six Nations in 2013 only for the Azzurri to wait 11 years for their next home victory in the competition.

But this time something feels different with Italy’s impressive performances at both the senior and Under-20’s level.

You get the sense that there is growth on the international scene and that is due to Benetton and Zebre competing consistently but most importantly, there is a plan to take the nation forward.

Famously, the Italians know that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a functioning national team, but listening to Pavanello, they are on the right trajectory.


Italy Fixtures