Few players embody the concept of a modern-day rugby player more than Italy’s Matthias Douglas.
The 19-year-old grew up on a rare diet of rugby, football and American football, the latter of which he owes to his Dallas-based father Karl.
A Cowboys fan, Douglas was born the year after generational running back Emmitt Smith left the NFL franchise, but you could be forgiven for thinking Douglas spent his childhood watching one of his team’s all-time greats dance round defences, if his finish against France in this year’s Under-20s Championship is anything to go by.
But it was another sporting legend who ignited his interest in the more traditional oval-shaped sport.
In September 2012, Richie McCaw’s New Zealand sealed the inaugural Rugby Championship with a thumping 54-15 win over Argentina, one that an awestruck Douglas will never forget.
“I started to play rugby when I was six but before that my dream was to play American football,” recalled Douglas.
“There was a moment which shifted my dream. Seeing Richie McCaw and his passion for rugby and the sport was a key moment that made me really want to play rugby.
“I could tell that he wanted to show everyone that rugby is the best sport in the world and that it’s a beautiful thing.
“I said to my family that I felt I could get to that level one day. That was my goal and it has become bigger and bigger. I’m still working to achieve that now.”
With his aspirations set back in his native Italy, Douglas spent his formative years at Valpolicella RFC in Verona and, after a brief foray into sevens rugby, signed for Mogliano Veneto, who ply their trade in Italy’s premier domestic competition, the Top10.
So the question as to how a young player with a relatively obscure background has amassed nearly 400,000 TikTok followers is one that even Douglas struggles to answer.
“I’m surprised I’ve got this many followers,” he joked.
“I started the account a couple of years ago just for fun. I don’t give too much time or thought to it.”
Take one quick look at Douglas’ TikTok page and you would see a physique that wouldn’t look out of place on Love Island.
But in a world where social media is becoming increasingly important for player access, Douglas admits he is conscious of his own brand and using different platforms to reach out to different audiences.
“I think it’s so important to show people what our goals are,” explained Douglas.
“I don’t show everyone my rugby process because it’s a private thing, but that’s why I use Instagram as I think it’s important to show people that we are doing something good and to show that rugby is important to me.
“It’s a beautiful sport and people should know that.”
One recent graduate of the Italy Under-20s who has certainly made rugby look a thing of beauty is Ange Capuozzo.
The full-back made a remarkable impact at the climax of the 2022 Championship, scoring twice against Scotland before setting up Edoardo Padovani for a sublime score in Round 5 against Wales.
Another young buck, Paolo Garbisi, kicked the winning conversion for that famous win in Cardiff, and Douglas says that the pair’s progression and ongoing development has offered great encouragement.
“It’s great because I was playing with Garbisi only two years ago,” said Douglas.
“Capuozzo is a similar player to me because we are both a little lighter than most.
“He shows me that physicality doesn’t matter so much. I believe I can do the same things as him, so it’s important for me to see him play as I can learn a lot.”
Douglas and the Under-20s have endured a difficult start to the 2023 campaign, having lost both of their first two matches by narrow margins.
But there is still plenty to play for, starting with the visit of reigning Grand Slam winners Ireland on Friday night, and Douglas is steadfast in his belief that both the junior and senior sides will soon be serious forces.
“For me, it doesn’t matter who believes in us because we believe in our goals and our work and we are reaching what we want to be,” he said.
“That’s the important thing. After the loss [against England] we were mad because we had delivered two good performances with no wins, but this shows that we are improving.
“We watch the firsts because they show us how to play and how to focus on the game. That first win against Australia was amazing and a big step for everyone.
“The movement has grown slowly but the work that everyone has done in the past is now beginning to show.”