Take one look at Leonardo Ghiraldini during the Italian national anthem and you can see just how much it means to him to play for his country.
The tears and the emotion during Inno di Mameli are clear for all to see.
So when the former Azzurri skipper called time on his Test career last month it was with a heavy heart.
But Ghiraldini knew the time was right to pass the baton to the next generation. After a decade and a half at the highest level and more than 100 caps, he had given everything he could to the Azzurri cause.
That was never truer than after the 2019 Championship, a campaign which came to an end just before the hour-mark of the final game for Ghiraldini when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament against France.
Ghiraldini put his club career on hold in order to rehab the injury and make the World Cup, only for typhoon Hagibis to intervene and deny him a swansong in the pool clash with New Zealand.
The 36-year-old explained: “It wasn’t an easy decision but I respect the jersey and I’ve always done everything I could for the blue, for the jersey, for the Italy team.
“The last two years have been crazy because I got injured in the last match of the Six Nations against France in 2019. I tried to be fit for the World Cup and I decided to follow the plan of the Italian national team to recover for the World Cup. So I decided to leave any club options.
“My goal was to go to the World Cup, I did and the typhoon came so I didn’t have the chance to play. After that, I was 34 so I spoke with my family and I decided to sign a contract in France. Covid came and again I didn’t have a chance to play.
“Then I had the opportunity to play with Italy in the Autumn Nations Cup and so I always enjoy playing for Italy but I think it’s the right time. You feel inside when it’s time to retire and to finish. I think it’s the right time. To get back on the pitch was a great opportunity and a great chance. I enjoyed every minute of the last few games but I always said before in my career that I would stop when I still had the legs and right mind to continue.
“I didn’t want to finish like a really old guy walking around the pitch. I had the opportunity to play at a high level again so I want to stop and leave the jersey at this moment.”
WORKING WITH FRANCO SMITH
Those three final games in the autumn gave Ghiraldini the chance to work with Franco Smith once again, having previously played under the South African at Benetton Treviso.
Ghiraldini is clearly a fan and although he will not pull on the blue jersey again, his passion for Italian rugby remains undimmed.
With Italy’s struggles to secure a Championship victory coming back into focus, Ghiraldini is aware of the urgency surrounding the squad, despite a clear desire to give the next generation an opportunity.
He added: “I have to thank the staff and Franco Smith especially. He took his responsibility because I didn’t have a club and hadn’t played for 19 months. So imagine getting back on the pitch at international level after two years, it was amazing. It was hard but it was amazing.
“I had the opportunity to get involved in a new environment because the staff was changing and a lot of players were changing in the last year in Italy. I tried to help the team on and off the pitch. It was a really good opportunity for me to help this new group to get better.
“Obviously the results weren’t good and we know we are in a tough moment in Italy in terms of results. That’s something that I try to push everyone harder to get better because we are not good enough.
“Sometimes we are really close to winning. Even when I got injured in the last game of the Six Nations in 2019. We were playing much better than France and the result was really close but in the end we lost because we don’t have the right mentality.
“We are not used to winning often and that comes from the club. If you have a winning mentality, you can bring that to the national team. That’s something we have to work hard on, it won’t come quickly but that type of game like against Scotland (in November) is the type you have to win so you can move on.
“If you win that game you have the confidence to win other games after that. You know you can win games and all the work you have done before will have results.
“Because they are working really hard, that’s what I’ve seen. It was really hard in training, the way they train, the way they want to prepare for the high level is amazing but you have to take the results from that. That’s the key for Italian rugby.”
Ghiraldini was just 21 when he got his first taste of international rugby, and by 23 he had even captained his country.
This new Italy squad is the youngest in the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, with 19-year-old Stephen Varney and 20-year-old Paolo Garbisi pulling the strings in the half-backs.
And it is Garbisi, in particular, who Ghiraldini believes has an important role to play in Italy’s future and present, citing the example of France as a model to follow.
He said: “The last few years, the under-20s have had good results. It’s an important moment when you pass from under-20s to seniors. You look at France, in the last three or four years they won in the under-20s and all the guys were involved in the Top 14 Championship.
“I played with some of them in Toulouse and Bordeaux and they are comfortable playing at the highest level even if they are really young. They bring that to the national team and the national team is one of the best in the world.
“Even if our players are young, they have to take their responsibility. We miss a bit of leadership in the group at the moment so they have to take it. Even if they are 20 years old, they shouldn’t be afraid to lead the group. If they are a good player and have the ability to lead the group, they have to. There are so many players in the past, people like Marco Bortolami and Sergio Parisse, who were leaders when they were young.
“They have to become men now because that’s what international rugby and sport in general, asks of you. I always use the example of France because I know their players well.
“If you see (Romain) Ntamack or (Antoine) Dupont, they are so young, but just because you see their passport is young, they are 21 or 22, but when you see them playing, they look mature.
“So they have to take this responsibility because the future is now. Everyone has to take a step forwards in terms of leadership.”
SUCCESS IN 2013
When it comes to his own career, Ghiraldini has no question over which edition of the Championship stands out. In 2013 Italy made it successive home wins over France, came within a converted try of England and then rounded off their campaign by beating Ireland for the first time in the Six Nations.
He recalls: “The Six Nations I remember most is 2013 when we won the first game against France. The atmosphere for that game was unbelievable because when we were singing the anthem there were all the former Italian players close to us.
“It was amazing, it’s something that we have to do more in the game, you feel the tradition and you feel someone before you has done something for you and you have the opportunity to get on the pitch, to enjoy yourself and play for the future generations.
“So I really felt important then, it was something emotional. We won that game and that Six Nations was a really good Six Nations for us. We were really close to winning in England, we had a really good game. Even though we lost, we felt we were in the game. To do that at Twickenham against England was amazing.
“After that, we won against Ireland in the last match of the Six Nations, we were in control of the game for the 80 minutes. So that’s the Six Nations I remember the most, and the second win against Ireland is a confirmation of the level of that group.
“I was playing in Treviso and 17 players in the 23 were from Treviso where we were winning a lot so that’s why it’s important to win in your club because you can bring that mentality to the national team.
“I remember the competition we had during that period and the competition between players in the gym, on the pitch, in analysis, it was a really good environment. So that was the most beautiful emotion I had in the Six Nations. But every game in the Six Nations, the atmosphere was incredible.”
As for his own ambitions now, Ghiraldini is hopeful of one final club opportunity, having enjoyed success in Italy, and later in England with Leicester and in France with Toulouse where he is still based.
And once his playing days are behind him, do not be surprised if he pops up again to do his part to help Italian rugby. Even in retirement, once a captain, always a captain.