Minichiello's Azzurri close in on World Cup

Italy captain Anthony Minichiello believes the Azzurri must kick on from their opening win against Russia and ensure they qualify for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup in order to safeguard the future of the sport in Italy.

The Italians began their qualifying campaign in style on Saturday with a dazzling 92-6 victory over Russia in Padova. They meet Serbia in Belgrade on Sunday, but will face their toughest test against Lebanon in the tournament's final double-header, and likely decider, on 29 October.

Minichiello, who was instrumental in directing his team around the field and set up several of the Azzurri's 16 tries, is spearheading a squad made up of players based in Australia, France and Italy, where there are currently six club sides.

Federazione Italiana Rugby League President Tiziano Franchini addressed the Azzurri squad ahead of their opening game against Russia to stress how important the tournament was for the growth of Italian rugby league, Minichiello revealed.

"Tiziano spoke about what it would mean to rugby league in Italy and where we could take it if we qualify. He also said that if we don't make it, he's not sure if rugby league can survive in Italy, so that really hit home to all of us," Minichiello said.

"I think rugby league here is getting better every year but we have to create interest so that more people want to get involved, and more sponsors come forward. How we do that is by winning these three games and making the World Cup so that, in a couple of years, Italian rugby league will be on the world stage, and we need Italy to be there so we can continue developing the game in the home country."

Despite the language barriers and mix of playing standards in the camp, Newcastle Knights second-rower and Italy vice captain Cameron Ciraldo said he's never been part of a squad that has come together so quickly.

Ciraldo, who admits the idea of playing in a World Cup for Italy "would be really humbling and sends shivers down my spine", has been impressed by the standard of the local Italian players.

"We didn't know what to expect, but the boys who have come from the domestic competition here are really good," he explained. "They've got some very good skills and they're obviously very tough. They've shown that in the way they've trained already, and it's a great opportunity for them to improve every time they get involved in something like this, and hopefully we'll see more of those players coming through."

Although questions have been raised about the number of Australia-based players in the Azzurri squad, Italy assistant coach and former Great Britain international Paul Broadbent is in no doubt about the value the NRL stars bring to the camp.

"The experienced NRL guys have been taking time out to point the developing local Italian players in the right direction, so it's been really good, even in the early stages of our time together. From what I've seen so far, the developing Italian players accelerate ten-fold when they're working in this environment, with such experienced guys to learn from."

It wasn't only the NRL's big names who impressed in Italy's opening game.

North Queensland Cowboys' youngster Joel Reithmuller was unstoppable in the second row, offloading at will against an outpaced Russia defence, while Manly new boy Ben Falcone and Northern Pride's Ryan Ghietti formed a creative halfback partnership.

Wyong winger Joshua Mantellato was impressive with the boot, racking up 14 goals and two tries to set a new points scoring record for Italy in the national side's biggest ever win.

Manly's Vic Mauro has joined the squad this week following the Sea Eagles' Premiership win, and will be in contention for Sunday's game against Serbia.

Former Kangaroos internationals Craig Gower (injury) and Anthony Laffranchi (family commitments) have been forced to withdraw from the qualifying campaign, although both remain keen to represent Italy in future.