Manuel Zuliani
Fresh from being voted Italy's best player, Manuel Zuliani is preparing for an intriguing Guinness Six Nations.

The prototype impact player – he could turn out to be an apt choice for Supersub in many of this year’s fantasy teams – Zuliani boasts impressive numbers that have seen him rise through the ranks at Treviso and in the national team. His only discernible flaw? Being so complete and impactful as a sub that others are preferred as starters.

There is no shortage of competition in the Azzurri back row, with standout competitors in captain Michele Lamaro, Sebastian Negri, Lorenzo Cannone and now Alessandro Izekor (all of whom are clubmates in the green and white of Treviso). It’s an area that has become Italy's strong point in recent years, whereas up until a decade ago it was the front row that was making waves.

“But we experience it as positive competition,” says Zuliani. “We help each other a lot off and on the pitch and we feel more than friends, almost like brothers. We study technical details together even at the end of training sessions. Having so many players in the third line who aspire to a starting jersey at the moment, I think it helps to raise the level.

“The latest arrival, for example, is Alessandro Izekor, who has phenomenal athletic skills and I think he has improved his game a lot in the last year. If we then look outside of us, all the teams have exceptional back rows with great physical qualities and first-rate individual skills.”

Born in Castelfranco Veneto in northern Italy, Zuliani grew up in nearby Paese, where he now returns from time to time to coach the Canguri's youth teams – in particular the under-16s. Before joining URC side Benetton, he spent time at Mogliano, and is currently returning to play following a six-week absence due to an injury sustained against the Ospreys.

“I’m very happy to be back on the field, I feel good and I’m calm,” he says. “I came through a negative period: first discomfort in my ankle, then a recurring knee problem. Now I feel fine, both physically and mentally. Even when I was in the academy, I suffered a micro-fracture in my shoulder and it was a dark time because my performance then suffered. I learnt to work on myself and grow from these experiences.”

A recent statistic showed Zuliani to be the most effective tackler in the URC. He has a tackle success rate of 93% to boot. As he puts it: "I always try to ground myself in the situation I’m in at that moment. I like to put pressure on the attack and be aggressive and then manage everything according to what I see in front of me.

“Sometimes it can be effective in getting my hands on the ball straight away; sometimes it’s more about being defensively organised. A coach of mine in youth rugby pointed out to me the possibility of having a career like Richie McCaw’s. Since then he has been my idol, although I still have a long way to go to be like him. Today, if I think of the ideal back rower I would say Ardie Savea: a modern player, explosive, strong in attack and defence.”

A vote in an Italian newspaper, Il Gazzettino, featuring a panel of experts formed primarily of Italy’s URC coaches and their counterparts in the elite Serie A league, named Zuliani as the best Italian player of the year. Back rowers who have received the accolade before him included Sergio Parisse, Alessandro Zanni, Simone Favaro and Jake Polledri.

"I’m very proud to be compared to these names and I hope I can live up to them,” is Zuliani’s reaction to winning the vote. But now his attentions have turned to Italy’s Guinness Men’s Six Nations opener at home to England on Saturday 3rd Feburary.

"There’s no particular game I’m looking forward to playing, because I would love to be in all of them,” says the 23-year-old. “My fondest Championship memory is my debut against France a couple of seasons ago. I still have to get to know the new coach, Quesada, but so far from what I have seen I like him and he has a positive approach.

“Even just the fact that he already knows Italian will help us to communicate better and, in any case, I have found in him all the potential characteristics of a great coach. There has been very little time to think about changes, but I still expect growth in our game and for this to be a tournament of evolution for Italy.”