Six Nations Legends: Leonardo Ghiraldini

Leonardo Ghiraldini 2/2/2019
A look at Italy’s most capped men’s players of all time in instructive about the historical strength of the Azzurri team – the top seven are all forwards.

A look at Italy’s most capped men’s players of all time in instructive about the historical strength of the Azzurri team – the top seven are all forwards.

The last of those to break into the side was hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, who quickly established himself as one of his country’s all-time greats in the position – one of their eight men’s centurions.

Over 14 years, Ghiraldini played for his country 107 times, captaining them on 17 occasions before eventually calling time on his career in 2021.

Padua product

Like many of the other greats of the Italian game – including fellow centurion Marco Bortolami and the Bergamasco brothers – Ghiraldini came through the ranks at Petrarca.

During his time there, he caught the eye, earning a big reputation through his performances for the country’s age-group sides.

A move to Calvisano in 2005 followed at the age of just 20, and it was not long before Ghiraldini received the inevitable call-up to the senior side.

A tour to Japan in 2006 saw Ghiraldini make his international debut off the bench, gradually cementing a spot in the squad.

International breakthrough

Facing competition from experienced campaigners Fabio Ongaro and Carlo Festuccia, Ghiraldini had to work hard to earn a starting role, but he did get his first Test start in the 2007 World Cup against Portugal.

That was his only appearance in that tournament, but by 2008, he had won over Nick Mallett and started every game of the Six Nations, including the victory over Scotland on the final day when Andrea Marcato’s late drop goal sealed the win.

A first Test try followed that summer in Argentina, and over the next decade, Ghiraldini was a near ever-present for the Azzurri.


In fact, by 2010, he had taken on such a senior role within the side that when Sergio Parisse was ruled out of the Championship with injury, Ghiraldini was the logical choice to step in.

It was a job that he had already taken on twice before, in a tour match in South Africa in 2008 and at home to Samoa the following year.

Leading your team in the Six Nations brings another level of scrutiny however, and Ghiraldini did so with aplomb as the Azzurri beat Scotland a fortnight after falling to a narrow 17-12 loss at home to England.

Parisse’s return saw Ghiraldini return to lieutenant status although he led the team again four times in 2015, before further captaincy chances in 2018 and 2019.

While serving under Parisse, Ghiraldini played his part in some of the great moments of Italian rugby history – the two momentous wins over France in 2011 and 2013, when they also got the better of Ireland.

Bittersweet farewell

By 2019, Ghiraldini had hit the final straight of his career with a World Cup in Japan set to be the perfect swansong.

Unfortunately, the 2019 Guinness Six Nations finished in the most heart-breaking fashion, Ghiraldini suffering a serious knee injury in a battling defeat to France.

A torn ACL usually means a minimum of nine months out, leaving Ghiraldini in a race against time to make the World Cup with even the most optimistic timelines making that look unrealistic.

And yet, he won that battle, securing a place in the squad. A final group match against New Zealand was due to be the perfect way to bow out, but Typhoon Hagibis had other ideas, with the match cancelled due to the weather conditions.

That felt like an unfair way to bow out for one of the greats of Italian rugby, but Ghiraldini was not done yet, coming back to play for the team for one final season in 2020 under Franco Smith.

He played three times in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup, with his final appearance coming in Llanelli against Wales.

Upon retirement from international rugby the following January, Ghiraldini said: “I have always given my all for the blue jersey, on and off the pitch.

“I’m aware that it is not a given to play for Italy, but doing everything I could to earn that right. Every call-up to the national team, I considered a unique and special occasion, enjoying it with all the possible energy, passion and respect because you can never take those moments for granted.”