The Making of…Ange Capuozzo

In the space of less than a year Ange Capuozzo has gone from uncapped prospect to the poster boy of Italian rugby.

In the space of less than a year Ange Capuozzo has gone from uncapped prospect to the poster boy of Italian rugby.

Not since Sergio Parisse has a player for Gli Azzurri captured the imagination quite like the cherubic Ange.

But while the country’s record appearance holder and greatest player had all the physical attributes you could want to excel at the highest level, Capuozzo’s journey to the top has been rather more improbable.

At 23, he now has six Test tries to his name, is the reigning World Rugby Men’s Breakthrough Player of the Year and was the decisive factor in last year’s historic win over Wales and first-ever success against Australia.

Turn the clock back four years though, and even Capuozzo was starting to wonder whether his size might hold him back.

At the end of 2018, he was playing scrum-half for the Espoirs at local club FC Grenoble, when Italy Under-20s happened to be in town for a friendly match as they prepared for the upcoming Under-20s Six Nations.

Without that match, played on a battered old training pitch, Capuozzo almost certainly would not be tearing it up as he is today.

After catching the eye on the pitch, Capuozzo introduced himself to the Italian coaching staff off it and explained that, while he was born in France, his family was Italian, and that he would love to play for Gli Azzurri.

Capuozzo recalled: “I’ve always dreamed of playing at the highest level. It’s not easy though, there are lots of obstacles that mean that at a certain point, you say to yourself that it might not happen. You give everything but you start to question yourself. I think I had a mix of a lot of work, but also luck.

“I think you have to admit that you need a little help from time to time, you have to provoke it. I had that little helping hand from Lady Luck when Italy came to Grenoble at a time when I was going through a tough time with the Espoirs. I was starting to ask a lot of questions about my future. That match reignited the dream, fuelled the fire and a few months later I got called up by Italy Under-20s, and then I got my chance with Grenoble’s first team.

“That was a turning point and the period that convinced me that not only did I want to do this with my life, but above all, that I could do this. Because, there was never much doubt that I wanted to play rugby at the highest level, there were a few more over whether I could.”

Fabio Roselli was in charge of the Azzurrini at the time, and was a big influence in his path to the top.

Now at Zebre, Roselli can still remember his first meeting with Capuozzo, who he called up for the World Under-20s Championship the following summer, not as a scrum-half, but as a full-back.

Roselli said: “That first meeting was in December 2018. He played scrum-half in the friendly and in the final minutes at full-back. At the end of the game, he came and introduced himself to our coaching staff and expressed his wish to play for Italy. It was a nice moment because we saw a boy who was not physically imposing, but who had personality. In the end, his physique did not hold him back, it was an opportunity.

“The decision to move him from scrum-half to full-back came in part because of the needs of the team, but also because the staff wanted to increase what Ange could offer on the pitch.”

At 71kg, the full-back is one of the lightest players on the international circuit, in fact on Sunday he came up against France tighthead Uini Atonio, who is literally twice as heavy as him.

Rather than hold him back, Capuozzo has turned his physical limitations into an asset.

“My size was a problem, my weight especially,” he explained. “It held me back several times. But I don’t like hiding behind it. If tomorrow I could be quick, smart, big and powerful and have everything, of course I wouldn’t say no. But I tried to respect the player that I was with the qualities that I have and use that to do as much as I can on the pitch.”

When he talks about his weight holding him back, it is no understatement. In fact, there were serious doubts at Grenoble over how he would ever succeed in the ultra-physical French leagues, with former Springbok full-back Gio Aplon indirectly playing a role in that attitude changing.

Bernard Jackman, the former Ireland hooker, who coached Grenoble between 2011 and 2017, recalls: “He was a youngster when I was there, he was about 15 or 16 in the academy. I’ll be honest, the conversations we had about him were that he was too small. Obviously, players can make idiots of you and he certainly has.

“Everyone could see he was gifted but he was a very small teenager, and he’s a small adult. At the time there was a big premium on size and height and the Top 14 was very kick oriented. You couldn’t see a role for someone like him.

“But, having said that, we then signed Gio Aplon. We got him from the Stormers and he came in and was unbelievably good. He was a small man and in Grenoble that probably changed the mindset about who could make it.

“Ange was gifted but we were worried he wouldn’t be big enough and he’s proven us all wrong.”

While his size might have been in question, what was never in doubt was Capuozzo’s ability to create something out of nothing.

He began his rugby career just down the road from Grenoble at l’US 2 Ponts, where he played from the Under-7s through to the Under-11s.

His first coach, Pierre Eymeri, remembers a precocious talent and a better human.

He said: “He was really small, even at the time, but from the earliest age, he had the ability to avoid tackles and play in space. He was the X-factor, as soon as he got the ball, everyone would go towards him in his team because they knew that he was the gamebreaker.

“But he was always a real team player, even when he was really young, he had the chance to score almost 75 percent of his team’s tries and he still wanted to play with the rest of the team.

“When he started to get older, we all wondered whether his physique would hold him back. Even at 16, he was still really slight, and we thought it might be complicated. But in the end, everyone gets things wrong, and thankfully they do. His evasiveness, his ability to play in space and his movement, have allowed him to succeed. It all shows to all the parents that not everyone on a rugby pitch is a huge bloke with lots of muscles. And also, it shows the value of hard work, because there was a time when the doors at Grenoble were not opened wide for him.

“He is the same person now that he was when he first got to know him. He’s very grateful for everything that has happened. He is very humble. I see his parents and his grandparents regularly because they live near the stadium. When he announced that he was leaving to join Toulouse, he invited three of his first coaches to come and watch his final game at Grenoble. Once a year, he’ll invite us to matches, he’s really someone who has his feet well and truly on the ground.”

Staying grounded has not been easy. Capuozzo made an instant impact on breaking into the Italy team, scoring two tries off the bench against Scotland on debut in last year’s Guinness Six Nations before his Cardiff run wrote his name into Championship folklore forever.

A summer move to Toulouse, the most successful side in French and European club rugby, has only increased the spotlight but Capuozzo has taken it in his stride.

In the follow-up to his Principality performance, he scored two wonderful solo tries against Australia and another against world champions South Africa.

France, and specifically Grégory Alldritt, were the latest victims of his quick feet, and England defence coach Kevin Sinfield will no doubt spend a lot of this week trying to work out how to limit Capuozzo’s influence.

It has been a whirlwind 11 months and his life will never be the same again.

Capuozzo admitted: “My life has changed because I’ve got international recognition. It pushed me into the limelight. I’ve grown as a person and a human, I’ve changed how I live my life. That is not do with rugby, it is a change of lifestyle, of managing my time, doing interviews, trying not to mix my private and public life. But it’s a good thing, I’ve managed to strike the right balance but it meant changing quite a bit.”

That Capuozzo has found that balance in his personal life seems appropriate, given that his balance on the pitch is his greatest asset.

From a boy who was almost lost to rugby purely because of his size, Capuozzo is in the process of becoming the face of Italian rugby.

Thankfully Lady Luck played her part in ensuring his hard work and dazzling skill were given the opportunity to shine on the biggest stage.

His European tour has already enjoyed successful dates in Cardiff and Rome. The Twickenham crowd are the next lucky bunch who will get to witness the diminutive daredevil first-hand.