Italy captain Mark Minichiello.

Haunted by the heartache of falling short four years ago, captain Mark Minichiello has vowed to lead Italy to an historic quarter-final appearance next month in what shapes as the most evenly contested World Cup in rugby league history.

Italy played their lone warm-up game against Tonga in Innisfail last weekend where bolstered by a number of high-profile NRL players they produced an encouraging display before going down 16-6.

It was a loss to Tonga in their final pool game of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup that prevented Italy from progressing to the knockout stages, a loss that has stuck with both Minichiello and coach Cameron Ciraldo, who was a member of the playing group four years ago.

Along with Minichiello, the likes of James Tedesco and Paul Vaughan played in that 16-0 loss to Tonga in 2013 but return to the Italian national team vastly improved players and with the addition of Eels forwards Nathan Brown and Daniel Alvaro to bolster the forward pack.

Italy begin their quest for a quarter-final berth against Ireland in Cairns on Sunday and Minichiello is adamant they can advance to the knockout stage of the tournament for the first time.

"We knew we were good enough to go on and play in a quarter-final that year," said Minichiello, who has played the past three seasons with Hull FC in the English Super League.

"Our last game we didn't play well enough to win that and I thought we had the side that probably should have gone on.

"We started really well in that comp. We beat England in a trial and we beat Wales quite well and then drew against Scotland in tough conditions and then we got beat by Tonga in that last game.

"But that was four years ago. We've learnt from that now. We had a decent campaign over there but we had a lot of fun too so this year we're going to make sure we put our best foot forward on the field.

"I'd love to be playing in a quarter-final in the Italian jersey."

With players drawn from the NRL, Super League, Italy's own Serie A competition and the Intrust Super competitions in both New South Wales and Queensland, Ciraldo's first task is to bring his team together.

 


A week embedded in North Queensland prior to the trial game against Tonga provided the basis for a unity he says will be vital in being able to advance before Fiji and the United States out of Pool D.

"With a short preparation it's very hard to come together really technically or structure-wise so hopefully the strength of the squad is how tight we are as a team, which we've worked really hard on this week, and hopefully how much effort we put in in every game," said Ciraldo, who revealed that no Italian player will receive any payment for playing in the World Cup.

"We spoke a lot about how hard our families and how hard our country has had to work to get what they needed to get so we want to emulate that when we play footy.

"They're a really good side Tonga, they're going to go really far in this competition but in the patches where Tonga had a roll-on we really hung in there but we've got a lot of work to do before we play Ireland this week to make sure we put our best foot forward."

For 35-year-old Minichiello who has one more year to run on his contract with Hull FC, the inclusion of players who were among the best in the NRL this season gives him genuine belief that they can top Pool B.

"There's a lot of talent in our side and you take confidence knowing that those guys have done it week in and week out here in the NRL," Minichiello told NRL.com.

"As long as we can come together and play for each other and show that real unity together then there's no reason why we can't go to a quarter-final."