Italy captain Anthony Minichiello and coach Carlo Napolitano have waited twelve long years to banish the ghosts of their 1999 World Cup qualifying defeat to Lebanon when, as young players, they both pulled on the Azzurri jersey for the first time.
On Saturday they found redemption in the unlikeliest of settings, snatching a 19-all draw with the Cedars in Belgrade to qualify for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup on points difference.
Reduced to a two-man bench following injuries to Cameron Ciraldo and Alex Ranieri, Italy squandered an 18-0 half-time lead to find themselves trailing 19-18 to a determined Lebanon side with five minutes remaining, bringing back momentary nightmares for the Azzurri veterans.
“I was certainly worried about 1999 all over again,” admitted a relieved Minichiello, after Italy’s last-gasp drop goal from Northern Pride scrum half Ryan Ghietti secured the draw.
“It was very tight and nerve-wracking at the end, and we really had to dig deep. But this is a very proud moment for everyone involved here, and the Italians back home as well. I’ll be back playing for Italy again in two years, for sure.”
Manly’s Vic Mauro, whose father was born in southern Italy and moved to Australia as a child, completed a dream season by winning competitions in both hemispheres.
“Playing for Italy has been an enormous experience for me,” said the second-rower, following emotional scenes at full time.
“I came into camp a bit late but the boys have been fantastic. It's been a wonderful season and this just tops off a great year for me. It's been a huge blessing to not only win the Grand Final but to now be part of the Italy team to qualify for the World Cup. It’s very special.”
Amid wild celebrations, Italy assistant coach and former Great Britain international Paul Broadbent revealed that an emotional team meeting on the eve of the clash with Lebanon had reaffirmed the squad’s commitment to the Italian cause.
“A lot of people have been saying ‘they're just a load of Australians’, but listening to them all talk individually about what playing for Italy meant to them and their families was inspirational,” Broadbent admitted.
“They explained how their parents and grandparents moved over to Australia from Italy with very little money, and how hard they worked to provide a platform for their families. It does mean a lot to these guys, and you could see how that passion they spoke of was released at the end of the game, and how much they got out of it.”
With only four domestic players featuring in Italy’s three qualifying matches, the Fedarazione Italiana Rugby League faces a huge challenge to accelerate the development of local players, all of whom are rugby union converts, to reach World Cup standard by 2013.
“Now we need to work on our domestic guys and get them up to a point where they're ready and proud to represent Italy as a rugby league nation,” admits Napolitano.
“There are plenty of rugby union players in Italy who want to try rugby a tredici (league) and represent their country in the World Cup, so I'm going to be pretty busy with that for the next two years.”