Sebastian Negri has no interest in mincing his words when it comes to Italy’s performance on the big stage last autumn. “Look, there’s no doubt about it, we let ourselves down at the World Cup,” he admits.
Italian rugby had generally been on the rise under Kieran Crowley – the embarrassment of a 36-game losing streak in the Six Nations was finally ended with that iconic win over Wales in 2022, Australia were beaten in a Test match later that year and they came agonisingly close to upsetting reigning grand slam champions France on the opening weekend of the 2023 Six Nations. The talented group of youngsters that had success together at under-20 level were starting to emerge on the main international stage.
But then the World Cup came. The culmination of a four-year cycle and Italy simply failed to turn up, as the promising project took a huge backward step. Reaching the knockout stages for the first time in their history was always going to be a big ask once drawn in a group alongside hosts France and the mighty All Blacks but a harrowing 96-17 loss to New Zealand and a 60-7 thumping at the hands of Les Bleus represented a huge setback.
The entertaining, harum-scarum nature of the rugby that brought them victories over Wales and Australia came back to bite and murmurings of unhappiness in camp with coach Crowley emerged. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Crowley has now departed, with Argentine Gonzalo Quesada – highly-regarded after impressive coaching spells at Stade Francais and Super Rugby side Jaguares – taking over. Whether he can corral the Azzurri talent into consistent results remains to be seen but back row Negri knows something needs to change.
“It’s probably too early to judge what he [Quesada] is like,” says Negri, speaking at the premiere of Netflix documentary Six Nations: Full Contact in London. “You’ve got to give a coach time, but I think we are going to have more balance to our game.
“Not to say we won’t throw the ball around – we want to attack, and it’s difficult to go back to what we did years ago just kicking, trying to work on our set piece, but there’s got to be a balance in the way we play. We probably got caught out a bit during the World Cup and certain games in the last Six Nations. I think if we have a balance to our game we will be a threat.”
If Italy are to be a threat, starting with a home game against England – a side they have never beaten in their history – to kick off their 2024 Six Nations campaign on Saturday, then Negri will be a key cog. One of the stars of Six Nations: Full Contact, the likeable 29-year-old is shown to bring the physicality required to succeed at Test level.
His infectious personality – as shown in the scenes where he is jokingly steering his long-term girlfriend Greta away from shops selling engagement rings (although he would go on to propose to her in May last year, just a few months after the series was filmed) – marks him out as one of the leaders in the Italy squad. Although hardly a veteran, his 52 caps and eight years of international rugby also make him one of the more experienced members of the Azzurri group.
“I feel old as f***,” laughs Negri. “The last camp we had, I looked around and thought, ‘I’m the most experienced here and probably one of the oldest’. That was a bit weird.
“But this is an improving group of players. Guys that were young at the beginning with two or three caps, now have 20 or 30 caps and are starting to get more experience. I think these guys will come into their own and they’ve got a responsibility to leave Italian rugby in a better place. I think these next three or four years are very exciting for Italian rugby.”
Negri is also very open in the documentary about his own unique journey to international rugby.
“Rugby is for everyone,” he explains. “I just tried to be myself and an open, honest book. I hope I don’t come across as a t***! I just tried to be as honest as I can.”
Born in Zimbabwe, an eight-year-old Negri and his family (Italian father and Anglo-Zimbabwean mother) were forced to flee their rural farm in the dead of night when a violent gang came to seize the property as part of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s expropriations against the country’s white landowners. After a prosperous upbringing, the Negris were running for their lives.
They initially took refuge in the country’s capital, Harare, before fleeing to South Africa and Negri fondly recalls the help given by his extended Italian family in their hour of need.
Once settled in South Africa, his family put their children through top schools and Negri thrived on the rugby field. He moved to England to study at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire in 2014 and made his Italy debut just two years later. He may speak with a hybrid Zimbabwean-South African accent but Negri’s heart belongs to the Azzurri.
“My father and his family were all Italian,” adds Negri. “Obviously what happened to my family growing up in Zimbabwe, my Italian family were there for us when we lost our home and our farm.
“To play for Italy makes me really proud because I am playing for the people that were there for us when we needed them most. I’m extremely proud of that and I had no hesitation. I feel like I’m Italian and very proud of that.
“They were there for my family when we needed it and gave us support. Every time I put on an Italian jersey I’ve got a responsibility to those people. Whenever I play, I try and do as best as I can. I’ll always sacrifice my body for that.”
Given where he’s come from, Negri has more incentive than most to put it all on the line and if his unusual story inspires others to follow in his footsteps – that’s just an added bonus.
“I think it just showcases that you can be at any age, have any upbringing, be of any background and go on and play professional rugby if you really want it,” he muses. “If you have dreams and aspirations to do it and you have the mindset of sacrificing things, you can do it.”
Perhaps Negri can inspire the younger generation to chase their rugby dream but inspiring Italy out of the Six Nations doldrums may be an even greater challenge.