Saccà: 'Women's Summer Series is an important pathway'

Italy U18s
Diego Saccà, who oversees Italy Women's U20s, speaks ahead of the upcoming home Women's Summer Series next month.

From 4th to 14th July, Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma - which is fast becoming the home of Italian women's rugby - will host the first edition of the Women's Summer Series.

"It's totally innovative, and it started with the international youth tournaments that got underway in the last three years with the U18 festivals," says Saccà, technical manager of the national women's youth teams. "In recent years, we've competed in a form of Three Nations with Scotland and Ireland, as well as some friendlies with Spain under-21. This [Women's Summer Series] will be the first real competition for the girls born in 2004 and 2005."

In Parma this July, Italy will take on Scotland and Ireland once again, with the added challenge of Wales. Being able to host the series on home soil is especially gratifying for Saccà, who hails from the port city of Livorno and won three senior caps for the Azzurri in the 2000s.

"First and foremost, we're delighted to be able to host this competition, given that almost all the big events like the previous under-18 festivals have been played outside [in Scotland, England and Wales respectively],’' continues Saccà. "We know the teams we are going to face, but it will be a tournament full of unknowns. Many girls in the age grades play sevens and are therefore making their first steps in fifteen-a-side rugby; and then you also have the increasing commitments to the women's national teams which is drawing in an ever larger pool of girls."

Women's rugby has been experiencing exponential growth in recent years. It is being followed by a record number of fans, and the recent Guinness Women's Six Nations Championship, won by England, saw the participation of a majority of contracted players - the Azzurre have 24 in their squad - while last year saw the launch of the new WXV tournaments.

In Italy right now, figures show about 5,000 registered players. The domestic championship this year saw the triumph of Villorba, whose star player, Alyssa D'Incà, claimed Player of the Match in the final against Valsugana, making it a personal double after her try against France in the Six Nations was voted the best of the tournament this year.

And there is no shortage of further innovation in the game, from the news of a women's British and Irish Lions touring team, to the feasibility study of a European championship for clubs, while Italy has already seen the formation of the female Treviso and Zebre franchises.

Now, a further step with the Women's Summer Series.

"For us it's an important investment in the construction of a pathway for the players and a route to the senior national team," says the 43-year-old, who's also a qualified lawyer. "It will be an interesting test to increase the players' confidence in an international environment. It's something that wasn't there before. Creating this experience for them at a formative level is a good opportunity for them."

How will the Italian team approach the event? "We had our last meeting at the beginning of May and there will be another one at the beginning of July, just before the series begins," he explains. "During the season, we held several training camps and then in March there was the U18 Festival, which was also relevant in terms of the under-20s."

The U18 Festival proved interesting from a trial perspective, with the introduction of the 4.5 size ball (about three per cent smaller than the men's equivalent). "This is something that can potentially help facilitate continuity in the game and we will see after the trials how it will be judged," he says. "I must admit that it was not easy to adapt, as the girls are used to playing with size 5 balls, especially in terms of throwing, but also in the use of the boot."

Speaking of growth, Italy, who saw the inclusion of Beatrice Rigoni and Alyssa D'Incà in the Team of the Championship in this year's Six Nations, will once again aim to be a competitive force in the next edition of the World Cup in England. Two years ago in New Zealand, they were the first team to reach the quarter-finals.

Currently in the ninth spot in the world rankings, in 2019 Italy achieved a second place in the Guinness Women's Six Nations, the best ever for an Azzurri team. In a sport that has seen great progress in Italy's senior men's and U20s sides, and a first ever win in Ireland for the women, things look promising.

"Having the opportunity to follow the entire youth pathway offers me a broader view of the entire picture," suggests Saccà. "Among the main requirements is giving the girls a chance to be able to express themselves at their best in the fifteen-a-side game. Widening the general pool also means having a greater number of players who can compete at international level."

What, ultimately, are his ambitions for the Azzurre squad who will compete in the upcoming Women's Summer Series? "At the moment, our wider group, which ranges from 2005-2006 to the 2002 girls, features about 35 players," Saccà says. "That's a good-sized cohort, but to keep consistency in our project, we don't want to expand it any further.

"We have a consistent scrum, which we have carried forward on the back of a lot of work since the under-18s, with some girls learning the fundamentals for the first time if they've come in from the sevens circuit. There are many aspects which we will have to continue to work on, both collectively and individually.

"We have a team with good confidence in attack and with interesting individual abilities, and it's natural that there will be different approaches from players who are different ages. That's an aspect that will be worked on. We want to offer the girls an experience that will allow them to make the transition to the senior national team as smooth as possible."