When Andrea Masi reflects on a sterling career at the highest level of rugby, it’s not the tries, the tackles or the trophies that stick with him most.
There were plenty of those of course – how could there not be during a 16-year, 95-cap Italy career – yet the most vivid memories come from the emotion, the pure joy and celebration that rugby provided not only to him but those around him.
The versatile back enjoyed myriad highs for his country, from his Championship debut against England in 2003 through to his final appearance in the competition against Wales in 2015.
And as the 37-year-old reflects on a career that undoubtedly saw him become one of the all-time Azzurri greats, there’s one standout memory.
DOWNING LES BLEUS
Back in 2011, Masi scored the decisive try as Italy recorded a first-ever Championship victory over France – battling back from 18-6 down to triumph 22-21 and send the Stadio Flaminio in Rome into raptures.
Masi’s try – as he snuck down the blindside to go over in the corner – narrowed the gap to 18-11 with 20 minutes left before Mirco Bergamasco’s brilliant touchline conversion and subsequent three penalties pinched an historic victory.
And in a way that only sport can, the celebrations united a country while leading to some moments that will live with the full-back for the rest of his life.
“It was one of the best memories of the Six Nations for me,” muses Masi. “It was the first time we beat France in the Championship and I can remember the joy of the fans.
“I still have such a vivid picture in my mind of their joy. My family and friends were so happy. It was a really special moment in my career.
“The week before we had lost badly against England [59-13 at Twickenham] and we received a lot of criticism.
“Before the game I remember everyone saying it was surely going to be a win for the French in Rome.
“But then we produced a great performance, eventually we won. And the celebrations afterwards were mad. The whole of Italy was behind us!
“After the game we went to the fan zone and it was just ridiculous. I will never forget the joy on my family’s faces. My wife was crying – she was so happy. It was such a special moment.”
INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION
Masi would go on to be named Player of the Championship that year – the first Italian to receive the honour – but it’s telling that his abiding memory isn’t of the silverware but of sharing a moment of pure elation with his family and countrymen.
Having a team-first mentality was a constant throughout his career and made him a popular presence wherever he went, with the final four years of his playing days spent in England with Wasps.
He was forced to retire aged 35 in June 2016, due to an Achilles tendon injury, but moved into coaching and is still at Wasps as an academy coach.
A quick glance at his Twitter feed demonstrates his commitment to the role and there can be few better people for a budding rugby star to learn from.
Masi is eager for his post-playing career to one day lead to a role in the Azzurri set-up up but for the time being, he is more than happy learning his craft in Coventry.
“I am working at Wasps as an academy coach and I am loving the job,” he explains. “I love working with the senior academy.
“Wasps is a great club and I love being involved as a coach now.
“I would definitely love to go back to Italy and coach at some point but now it’s time for me to learn how to coach. I want to go to Italy with a more experienced background in coaching.
“This current Italy team put in an incredible effort – both the players and the staff – and they really do deserve some credit. And the fans deserve it too.”
With Masi, it always comes back to the fans and you get the feeling there could well be more created by him for the Italian faithful at some point in the future.