In the last Exiled Irish piece, I looked at several Ulster-bred players who are contracted in the Aviva Premiership. This time around, Italy is the location. There are three Irish professionals playing in the Italian Super 10 at the moment. It’s definitely a league that is well under the radar here in Ireland, and in the rest of Europe. Still, it’s a fantastic place to be playing rugby. The quality of the league is obviously at a lower level than our own PRO12, but that simply means further opportunities for Irish guys to make a career for themselves.
With it’s warm climate and incredible cuisine, Italy could certainly be a sweet consolation for players who haven’t quite been able to break through for the provinces, or looking for a new challenge later in their careers. Alongside an intelligent agent, the Italian Super 10 could also be used as a springboard to higher success. It’s definitely worth a thought, especially here in Ireland where our view of rugby can be very insular.
Here’s four Irish guys who recognised the opportunities available in the Italian Super 10:
Tighthead prop Ryan was an Irish international at U18 and U19 level, although he played in the back-row at that stage. The chronic lack of tightheads in Ireland dictated that the Cork man was soon converted to the front-row. His strength and power made him an early success, with Munster signing him at the start of the ’05/06 season. However, opportunities were limited and over the next four seasons the Ryan made just 13 appearances off the bench. His only start came against the All Blacks as Munster almost pulled off a famous win in November 2008.
Ryan’s performance that day convinced Top 14 side Toulon to give him a chance for the ’09/10 season. The 120kg prop made 12 appearances over the course of the year before joining Premiership outfit Newcastle for the ’10/11 campaign. In England, Ryan made just 9 starts and he moved on at the start of this season to current club Cavalieri, based in Prato. The 27-year-old appears to have found his feet extremely well in Italy. He’s been first-choice at tighthead, playing 6 Amlin Cup games. Cavalieri head into their Super 10 play-off semi-final this Friday as favourites after topping the regular season table. Ryan has become a vital cog for the Italian side with his powerful ball-carrying and strength in the scrum.
Cavalieri Profile: Tim Ryan
Dave is Tim’s younger brother and he’s also based in Italy, with Super 10 side Lazio. The younger Ryan plays mainly at loosehead prop. An Irish U19 international, Dave came through the Munster Academy to secure a full-time professional contract. However, similarly to his brother’s experience, the opportunities were limited to just 2 starts and 8 substitute appearances over the course of three seasons. With his time at Munster up, Dave moved to Lazio at the beginning of this season. He’s now enjoying regular professional rugby for the first time, starting all but 2 of Lazio’s Super 10 games this season.
Lazio finished their season 6th in the league after a very inconsistent campaign which saw just 6 wins in 18 games. Still, it’s only the Rome-based club’s second season in the Super 10 after winning promotion from the Serie A in ’09/10. They will continue to improve and so will 25-year-old Ryan. Italy has a strong reputation for scrummaging excellence, and that’s one of the areas where Ryan is going about proving himself. If he can build on this season’s efforts, he may well earn a move to a more prestigious level. He has plenty of time on his hands and plenty of talent.
Dublin-born Hickey is an ex-Ireland Schools, U21 and ‘A’ international, currently contracted to Super 10 side Petrarca Padova. He earned his first professional contract with Leinster back in ’05/06. Only three substitute appearances followed, so Hickey moved south to join Munster in ’06/07. Again, opportunities were limited (10 in total) so the outhalf/fullback took up an offer from Premiership side London Irish. Hickey had two enjoyable seasons with Irish, making 15 Premiership starts, as well as featuring in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Cup.
The ’09/10 season saw a move to Wasps, but again first-team rugby was hard to come by. Hickey made just 6 appearances before leaving the club at the end of the campaign. The outhalf returned to Ireland and played a season of Ulster Bank League rugby with Lansdowne. However, the stint at home didn’t last long and Hickey was off to Petrarca last summer. The 30-year-old has been integral for the Italians since, starting every game this season and kicking 182 points (3rd best in the league) as well as chipping in with a try. However, last year’s champions narrowly missed out on a play-off spot due to points difference. Still, with Aironi folding, and the possibility of a new Italian PRO12 side, this is a good time for Hickey to be impressing.
The loosehead was a teammate of Tim Ryan’s at Cavaliero in the Super 10 this season. Young’s career began with Ulster in April 2002 when he came off the bench against Connacht in an Interprovincial clash. It took until ’05/06 to establish himself as undoubted first-choice at the province. His excellent form that season resulted in an international call-up and Young went on to earn 8 caps for Ireland. He was also a member of the 2007 Rugby World Cup squad. In 2009, he won a Churchill Cup with Ireland ‘A’ and also passed to 100 cap mark for Ulster.
Last season at Ulster, Young was still an important part of the squad, making 19 appearances. His technical scrummaging ability and the fact that he could cover at tighthead made him valuable enough to earn 132 caps in total. However, this season saw the Ballymena man take on a new challenge with Cavalieri. Unfortunately, injury restricted the 30-year-old to just 4 starts before Christmas. A front-row including himself and Ryan would have been a great sight. According to the Cavalieri website, Young’s serious back problem resulted in termination of his contract. A well-placed insider has reported that Young’s injury may mean his career is at an end. Despite the injury, hopefully he was able to enjoy the taste of a new culture.
Photos courtesy: Daniela Pasquetti.