menoncello trophy
Who better to give an insight to the new Guinness Player of the Championship than his club coach?

Former second row Marco Bortolami, who won 111 caps in the Azzurri second row, is now the head coach of Benetton Treviso. He gives us a detailed description of Tommaso Menoncello, who today became the youngest player to win the prestigious individual award.

Tommaso Menoncello was born and raised in Treviso, wearing the green-and-white jersey of Benetton since his youth rugby days. When he made his senior international debut, he made an immediate impact, scoring against Wales.

The 21-year-old’s qualities are many, and were there for all to see from a young age. As Bortolami - who counts Petrarca Padova, Narbonne and Gloucester among his former clubs - tells it: "This recognition as the best player in the 2024 Guinness Men’s Six Nations is not a surprise. In the last two years Tommaso has grown substantially. His main qualities are his athletic skills, his power, the fact that that in contact he is able to go further and stay on his feet, which gives him great added value. And then there is the whole competitive and aptitude aspect that is evident in the way he plays and in his ability to beat the opponent in front of him.

“Compared to last year, barely twelve months later, he has developed a certain consistency in what he does on the pitch, and I think that was the biggest step up for him. In attack he is able to execute what he needs to do without losing control of the ball or going to the ground, presenting the ball in the best possible way. That’s a sign that he is developing and refining his instincts for the game.

“I believe his main position is outside centre, where even in defence you have to have an understanding that’s not easily acquired. He is improving in this too, understanding the various scenarios, when he may be in a strong position or underpowered, and this translates into the ability to be able to recover in key moments. His potential has always been clear, but having improved on these aspects I think is what is making him a superior player.”

The number 13 jersey may then be his eventual destination, but in order to wear it he has been going through a gradual transition; from his beginnings on the wing, to being deployed at inside centre on an almost permanent basis.

An ever-present at his side throughout has been his midfield partner in club and country colours, Juan Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Brex (pictured below with Menoncello). So effective has their partnership been that, hot on the heels of Scotland’s midfield ‘Huwipulotu’ portmanteau, we now have ‘Brexoncello'.

“Being progressively exposed to different situations is is important, and he has it,” says Bortolami. “Equally, he has good instincts, he knows how to adapt to various circumstances. For example, against the Lions in the Challenge Cup round of 16 he will play on the wing. He is a versatile player.”

“On the other hand, if we want to help him to become one of the best in the world in what I think is his most natural position, outside centre, it is fundamental to have players like Brex, or even with Treviso, Malakai Fekitoa, who have a more refined experience and depth in the vision of the game. These players have matured from years on the field, and Tommaso must learn from them.

“Today, Tommaso is a dominant ball carrier, but he needs to explore his full potential, such as moving the ball, becoming a playmaker when needed. That way he can become a complete and more dangerous player. If an opponent knows that when he has the ball in his hands he makes contact, that's one thing. But if he knows that he can do three different things, that's another thing altogether.”

Those aspects, and his footwork, are things he will continue to work on, explains Bortolami. "He is a very young boy and so everything is as it should be. He's learning fast and if he maintains this appetite and this hunger, he'll continue to improve.”

At such a young age, and already a Guinness Player of the Championship, Menoncello has the world at his feet. The progress made in recent years by Treviso, who are aiming for the European final this season (they went out in the semi-final against Toulon last year) and a place in the top eight for the URC finals, could help keep one of the most crystalline talents of recent years in Italy.

In the past, talents such as Menoncello often moved abroad - something that Marco Bortolami himself knows well. "Having a depth in the team now allows you to retain players who perhaps a few years ago would have left earlier,” he says. “It is equally clear that perhaps there will be other paths in his future, and it is right that there should be. Our interest is to train and retain the best players as much as possible; something that I believe has strengthened over the years and will become more and more consolidated. We also understand we won’t always be able to compete with the economic power of other clubs.

“In the meantime, it is important to complete the player’s journey, whereas in the past sometimes this choice was not there. My hope, then, not only for Tommaso, but in general for all the young players we have at our disposal, is that they will stay with us for a long time, because they are quality athletes in whom we are investing.”

Tommaso Menoncello proved instrumental this year for both Treviso and Italy in the Championship. "He is a player capable of breaking the mould," Bortolami says. "In a one-on-one he creates situations that others can’t, and he is an athlete capable of changing games. Even in less obvious, less striking interventions, he is able to solve difficult defensive situations, translating pressure into a dominant position. He is doing this in a more and more positive way and he still has his best years ahead of him, so I think his importance for Treviso and for Italy is fundamental.”

So far, the only other Azzurri player to have been awarded the title of best player in the Championship was Andrea Masi, another former centre with a powerful physique. Bortolami played with Masi both for Aironi and the national team, and the duo coached together in Treviso until last year, when Masi joined the Toulon coaching team with another Italian luminary, Sergio Parisse. (There are rumours the Toulon pair could be in Italy head coach Gonzalo Quesada’s backroom plans in the future.)

"I think they’re two quite different players. Maybe there is a similarity in terms of physical power, since Andrea was also very powerful in contact and always made presence known defensively. Tommaso, I think, has potential and a physical and technical background that he can still explore - and you don't see that very often. He is, so to speak, a diamond in the rough that needs to be refined. I suppose it's always a bit difficult to compare players from different generations, given the big changes the game undergoes all the time.”

In the past, even very recently, it was often the case that promising young talents exploded into public consciousness before flaming out before its expectations could be met . Today, a lot of work is being done on players’ mentality, but what else can be done to avoid repeating the same mistakes?

"First of all, keep your feet on the ground,” states Bortolami, “and continue to have the desire and hunger to establish yourself and work hard for it. Also, having the capacity to receive feedback on areas of your game that still need to be worked on. That’s what those who are more talented than others often end up stalling on.

“The game changes, you mature over the years and your physique also changes, so if you struggle to adapt you are cut off. That's why it's important to maintain humility and a hunger to learn: that's what distinguishes a talented player from a successful one. And then to look for every situation in order to develop and improve your game and, as I said, the ability to receive feedback is fundamental to this, because you get instant feedback on the pitch, but you also get it from your coaches and this is what allow you to make improvements faster.

“Tommaso is a player of unquestionable quality. We love him very much and we hope he stays with us as long as possible.”

The growth of Treviso in recent years has coincided with a strong block of its players featuring for the national team. The results achieved in this year’s Championship were Italy’s best since joining the competition in 2000, with two wins and a draw.

"The boys are managing to be positive at the highest level," concludes Bortolami. “Obviously, for us at Treviso, the tournament has passed so we’re still going through that transition as players return to the club. It’s challenging, but I have always told my players that growth is also achieved through the awareness that internationals must be good at playing at Test level and then in coming back and facing what is the most important part of the season for their club; recharging themselves and understanding that there is still a lot to give.

“I feel this has changed from last year and will be even better next year. I have a lot of confidence in this interchange and in the ability of the players to reach this level.”