On the field, Maxime Mbanda has long been a trusted servant for Italy.
The flanker has amassed 20 caps for his country over four years, including 10 appearances in the Guinness Six Nations, since making his debut against the USA in San Jose in 2016.
But in a year which has seen the global coronavirus outbreak turn the world upside down, the 28-year-old has also gone above and beyond for his country off the pitch as well.
Back in March, Mbanda swapped the back row for the frontline by volunteering in Parma to help those in need after getting in touch with the Yellow Cross.
Wearing a mask and protective suit, he joined other volunteers in Emilia-Romagna, one of the areas in Italy most affected by the pandemic, to assist the elderly and vulnerable.
VOLUNTEERING ON THE FRONTLINE
Mbanda was volunteering up to 17 hours a day during the height of the pandemic, transporting patients to and from hospital after initially delivering masks, food and prescriptions.
It was a far cry to what Mbanda had been doing just days before when he and his Azzurri teammates were preparing for their Championship encounter with England.
But once the final round fixture was postponed, Mbanda quickly decided to put himself to good use and help his country in any way he possibly could to combat the virus.
“I had time on my hands, and I wondered what I could do to help my community, despite not having the necessary medical skills,” Mbanda explained.
“I searched on the internet and came across an article that talked about a collaboration between the Municipality of Parma and the Yellow Cross.
“It mentioned bringing food and drugs to the elderly who’d been forbidden to leave the house to safeguard their lives so the first day I started doing that.
“But by the second day the Yellow Cross asked me to help transport positive coronavirus patients from one hospital to another.”
FOLLOWING IN FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS
With a surgeon for a father, Mbanda knew better than most the pressure medics were facing in Italy as a result of the coronavirus pandemic before volunteering his time and energy.
Born in Rome to a Congolese father and Italian mother, Mbanda’s dad had tried to convince him to become a doctor when he was a teenager before he arrived at rugby relatively late.
Encouraged by his mother, Mbanda grew up playing in Milan teams Amatori Milano and Grande Milano before being selected in the summer of 2012 by the Italian Academy.
His big break came when he signed for top-flight side Calvisano, playing in two Eccellenze finals, while he made his PRO12 debut for Zebre at home to the Dragons in March 2015.
And having made his debut for Emerging Italy in the Tbilisi Cup in 2014 against Argentina, his senior Test debut arrived two years later when he faced the USA in San Jose.
He has been around the Italy squad ever since, making his Championship bow in 2017 with a huge performance against Wales which saw him finish the game with a tally of 25 tackles.
But rugby took a backseat for Mbanda when Covid-19 began to take hold in Italy – even if he approached his volunteering with a similar mindset to when he’s out on the field.
“Like in a rugby match, I just think of my objectives,” he told World Rugby in April. “In this case, to score a try means to save a person or as many people as possible.”
PRESTIGIOUS RECOGNITION FOR SERVICE
Mbanda’s service for his country did not go unnoticed and he was named a Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by President of Italy Sergio Mattarella.
The award was delivered to Mbanda on Tuesday at the Vittorio Veneto Hotel in Rome, where the Azzurri are based ahead of their Guinness Six Nations match against Ireland.
In another show of his dedication to Italy, Mbanda opted not to take part in the official ceremony at Quirinal Palace as it would have meant he would be unavailable to travel to Dublin.
And president of the Italian Rugby Federation Alfredo Gavazzi was full of praise for Mbanda and his selfless decision to fight the coronavirus pandemic on the frontline.
“As a father of a family and as a simple citizen, I was deeply impressed by the responsibility that Maxime showed in one of the darkest and most complex moments our Republic went through during the first phase of the pandemic,” he said.
Mbanda has been named among the replacements for Italy when they face Ireland at the Aviva Stadium but whether he plays or not, he is already a hero in his nation’s eyes.
“I don’t have adequate words to express the emotion I felt when I received the medal and the diploma of Knight of the Republic,” he said upon receiving the honour.
“A sensation never experienced before, which I want to share first of all with my family, with all the colleagues of the Yellow Cross and with all those who put themselves at the service of the country in this difficult period.
“This honour represents an important recognition for the commitment made by all of them during the lockdown and my commitment is to continue alongside the Parma Yellow Cross as well as my sporting commitments. They too, like Italy and the Zebre Rugby Club, are my team.”