Following a successful spell in charge of Italy U20, Massimo Brunello is moving on.

Brunello will hand over the reins to his assistant, Roberto Santamaria, before moving to URC outfit Zebre ahead of next season.

Born in Arquà Polesine, in the province of Rovigo, he wore the red and blue jersey of the city's Bersaglieri 257 times between 1985 and 2000, scoring a total of 101 tries and winning championships in 1988 and 1990. It was in '88 that the play-off that Brunello, a fleet-footed, evasive fullback, kicked his famous conversion to claim victory for the club at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome.

Following his retirement, he took his first brisk steps into coaching, gaining promotion for Badia Polesine to Serie A. He coached Rovigo, and then Calvisano, where he won two national titles in 2017 and 2019, before becoming head coach of the national U20 team.

The new Italy U20 set-up is likely to see Santamaria joined by coaches Andrea Marcato (Petrarca Padova) and Alessandro Lodi (Rovigo), while the current assistant coach, Mattia Dolcetto, will follow Brunello to Zebre, who will be competing for the Challenge Cup in 2024/25.

Italy's 2024 U20 Championship was something of a rollercoaster ride, which could have ended with three victories. It included an historic win against France; a convincing home victory over Scotland; an agonisingly narrow defeat to the Irish; and, above all, the arm-wrestle in Cardiff against Wales.

"From a certain point of view," says the former Azzurri youth coach, "we had some unthinkable results, such as the victory in France, or coming so close against Ireland - two nations that we consider to be top teams. We were disappointed with England, because after beating them last year there were high expectations, but they proved their worth by going on to win the tournament.

"Overall, I would say it was a positive campaign, with the exception of the second half against Wales, which clearly left a bitter taste in our mouths. It was a game within reach, we knew we had high potential and when you lose it's not good at all, especially the way we did it.

"There was probably a bit of arrogance, since we had a clear lead at the end of the first half, and we knew that we had beaten them in both the under-18 and 19 categories; that we were technically and physically superior, and that we were coming off the back of a positive series. But often in sport it happens that you think you are stronger and then you come up against reality. And with Wales, especially in Cardiff, it is never that simple. We have, however, generally enhanced players who I now hope can do just as well at the World Cup."

He elaborates on the England disappointment, which came in round one. "We probably didn't expect it, but they had five or six athletes that we didn't see last year," explains Brunello. "Take Henry Pollock, for example, voted Player of the Championship, who made the overall difference [with his hat-trick]. They were physically solid up front, at times we even managed to put them in difficulty, but there were some management errors and the result then slipped away. I think they were afraid of us and put a lot of focus into that game.

Then came that one-point loss to reigning champions Ireland. As Brunello sees it: "Cork is a difficult field to play on, a stronghold of what is an undefeated national team at home for years. You don't win easily there. We came very close, showing a good reaction after the defeat against England and playing perhaps our best game of the tournament, although unfortunately the victory eluded us.

"Then we repeated the performance - I think even a bit less impressively - against France, but we managed to be more clinical, scoring when we had to and we made the difference. It's those victories that I don't like to call historic, but in Béziers with that awesome atmosphere, it was really something exceptional. Victories that, in recent years, have distinguished the under-20 team. Think of the successes against England and South Africa, that until a few years ago seemed impossible."

This year's U20 Championship once again unearthed several prospects for the future, such as Marco Scalabrin, Marcos Gallorini, and Piero Gritti.

"It may not have had those peaks of talent that there have been in previous years, but many players laid the foundation for themselves," believes Brunello. "It may take a little longer to develop their potential, because everyone has their own personality. The names mentioned have done very well, as have others. I'm think of the Bellonis, Zanandreas who were born in 2004.

"We can also talk about Botturi, Casilio, Gasperini, among the '2005s' in whom we saw excellent qualities that we hope they will be able to build on in the future. In the end, our job as coaches is above all to be able to enhance the players and their potential.

"In this sense, look at Tommaso Menoncello: Guinness Player of the Championship in 2024. He passed through the Azzurrini for a short year before landing almost directly in the senior team.

"Tommaso was with us the first year of the under-20s, in the Six Nations played entirely in Cardiff [due to the pandemic], and then he immediately made it to the senior national team. He is a boy with a physical potential that is hard to miss, one of those phenomena that happen once in a while, but he is also a hard worker and is applying himself on technique and understanding the game. He's a golden boy off the field, so I can only congratulate him on the recognition and, if ever there was a need, encourage him to continue on this path."

Brunello sees the need for continuity in the U20 pathway, which is why he is confident the future will be bright under Santamaria. "I think it's a natural transition for the work done by myself and Mattia [Dolcetto, assistant coach]. We worked together a lot, even in the Academy, so certain principles will continue. What I like is that every year there is more and more desire to be there, all the guys are ambitious to get to play with the national under-20 team. And then, seeing that they win and do well, everyone wants to be part of it."

It follows, then, that this success also aids in the transition to the first team - something that perhaps was lacking in years gone by.

"It's just a matter of having a bit of patience," says Brunello. "Today there are a lot of guys coming through a little at a time and you get the right mix of youth and experience. The more the years go by, the more competitive we will be, in my opinion."

With this in mind, working closely with Italy's two franchises - one of which, the Zebre, will be Massimo Brunello's new home at the Stadio Lanfranchi in Parma - becomes fundamental. For Brunello, the new objective is to reinvigorate Zebre after some difficult seasons.

"It is a franchise that focuses a lot on young players and on giving an opportunity to those who are able to deserve it," Brunello says, "with the possibility of putting themselves on the line in a competitive league like the URC, which then serves as a springboard towards the national team. Together we want to do something important and I am convinced that we can do it. It's a great challenge for me and I hope to create the right mix between staff and players, a good relationship of harmony to get the best out of the boys."

Preparations for the next Junior World Championship begin shortly and in mid-June, in San Benedetto del Tronto, the first friendly match of the Italy U20 team led by Santamaria against Spain. How will it feel not to be there? "It will be strange, these being boys I coached until a few months ago. I would have liked to be there. They will have a difficult group, but then again in a World Cup with twelve teams there are no easy ones."

So, are there any major regrets and satisfactions from his years at the helm of the Azzurrini? "There have been good memories in every year. Even the first year we were extremely competitive, achieving a defensive record that is difficult to match," he replies. "Then came the victories against England, the three in the Six Nations - something that never happened before - the third place, the win against South Africa. We always did something positive. The regret, perhaps, is for a few missed opportunities, like last year and the first year against an incredible France team.

"The defeats that hurt the most, on the other hand, were the one this year against Wales and the one at the World Cup against Fiji, where we were stronger and we had to win, but we didn't succeed."

That 'incredible' France U20 team he speaks of formed the basis of Fabien Galthie's impressive side today. Could Brunello's boys provide a similar revolution in the new era of Gonzalo Quesada's Italy? "Definitely, and I believe it will always be easier. In the senior national team the right context has been created and a good group for which it could become easy to enter and prove one's worth. I think in the future we will see an increasing number of young people who can do well."