Montanna Ioane never figured it would work out like this, a reputable club career in Treviso putting him on the cusp of playing for Italy in the Guinness Six Nations championship. Growing up it was the Wallabies who had his attention.
Uncle Digby enjoyed a 35-cap career on the Australian wing that began when his impressionable nephew was aged 12 and only getting back into the game having stopped years earlier as he didn’t enjoy the sport when he first tasted it as a mini.
Now all grown up, the 26-year old with the ready smile and the all-over body tattoos is primed to be a distinctive, dapper presence in the Azzurri ranks in the weeks ahead. A bolt from the blue was how it all ignited.
When Monty ended an unfulfilled developmental stint at Stade Francais under Digby’s wing after being in the Queensland Reds academy, he swore he’d never be back in Europe.
Then came a call from Kieran Crowley and the rest is history, Ioane becoming a potent figure on the Benetton roster who has since graduated to the Test arena, debuting last month for Italy away to Wales in Llanelli after qualifying under the 36-month residency rule.
“It has been a long journey and it was definitely a proud moment in my career,” enthused Ioane to RugbyPass, chilling out in his hotel room in Rome on Saturday in between the end of Italy training and tuning in later that afternoon to see Benetton denied at the death by Munster with a last-gasp PRO14 drop goal.
“Anybody playing international level would be proud. Win or lose, for me just being on the pitch is what made me happy and I couldn’t be more proud. Being presented with the jersey pre-match, that definitely hit a spot. It was just an amazing feeling. I got a bit emotional, shed a couple of tears in my hotel room.”
He wasn’t the only one crying with joy. “My dad called me before my first game and told me Digby called and was crying, saying how proud he was of me. He was a huge influence on where I am today and I’m very grateful for what he did.”
Six Nations didn’t grab Ioane’s attention growing up. “I never watched any of it,” he admitted. But as soon as the long-term potential of his move to Benetton was outlined to him, prising him away from Mitre 10 Cup set-up he was involved in at the time in 2017, his interest was piqued.
“Before coming over that was the goal. I got to know about all the teams and I was like, ‘Oh man, these great players, it would be awesome to play against them one day’. It turned out perfectly just being here under Kieran.
“He has definitely played a big part in it. I do really enjoy my time being here in Italy. I would never have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be playing in Italy, it was just so out of the blue, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.”
So much so that when he was propositioned with a return to Super Rugby in Australia, he voted with his heart and signed an extension keeping him at Benetton until the end of the 2021/22 season. “I was doing what was best for me and my family – my family seemed to like Italy and so did I. In the long-run, we just thought that staying in Europe was the best option for us and because I have enjoyed being in Europe.”
Without a Six Nations win since 2015, the Azzurri’s early February schedule is daunting. France next Saturday followed the weekend after by England, the championship’s top-two in 2020 and the pair who then went on to fight it out in the Nations Cup final. Nerves? Not a jot. The debut in Wales taught Ioane an invaluable lesson he isn’t forgetting with the days counting down to the February 6 Italy opener at Stadio Olimpico.
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“Honestly, I’m not really that excited. I am not as excited as I was in the first game. I didn’t get to show what I was capable of because I think I was playing the game before it was even played because I was too excited, thinking about what can I do.
“Now I’m just literally trying to take it day by day. I’m excited and I have no doubt I’m excited about it but I don’t want to get myself too hyped for it otherwise I will miss what is actually in front of me. I feel more comfortable now that I’m training with the actual squad whereas before I was training on the reserve side, so I couldn’t really get a feel for how certain people were playing. I was quite happy but definitely looking forward to getting involved in this coming Six Nations.
“The one thing I love about the Italians, they are always striving to learn and grow together. Especially with coach Franco Smith, it has been a good learning period for me coming under his wing. “He doesn’t teach me the things that I know, he teaches what we don’t know in terms of things off the ball. Everyone knows how to catch and run but it’s the things when you don’t have the ball that makes a difference too. He really emphasises that stuff and it has been good.
“We’re definitely looking to go into the next game and come out with a win. We’re not just going out there to make up numbers. We actually want to go and compete,” he said, adding that while Rome and the rhythm of Test rugby preparation in the Italian capital are unfamiliar to him, he is enjoying what it all entails.
“Rome is all new to me. My family has been here quite a lot but I just hadn’t time to come down and explore a bit and I haven’t been able to explore while I have been here because we are in an isolation bubble. What can you do? I do get to see it on the way to training on the bus.
“The bubble has been good. Treviso, Zebre, they have their little groups, but the bubble has brought people together because you’re not allowed to leave the hotel. Downstairs we have got a little ping-pong room set up and you just tend to go down there, mix and mingle and whatnot.
“We are stuck together for the next six, seven weeks or so. At times it will be tough, some days tougher than others, but when you get to know the boys and you’re playing activities downstairs you tend to grow with them.”
? @MontyIoane's Home Workout! ?
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) March 18, 2020
Growth is something Ioane has done much of personally during the pandemic, evolving from someone who was highly strung to finding inner peace and calm sparked by a sudden interest in Islam which resulted in him becoming a Muslim last July.
“I always believed there was something bigger than us, much bigger than us, and always had a hard time figuring out what that was. I was in my room and just wasn’t feeling the greatest, I was having a low point in my life.
“But I started speaking to my partner, she’s a born Muslim, and she started talking about God and there was a time where it just randomly hit me, where it hit the spot for me which was quite amazing as I had never felt that way before.
“Then I did a lot of reading and study. This was while I was in my first camp with the national team. I was in my room for about two weeks just learning and reading and I just fell in love with God. I was born a Catholic but I wasn’t very religious. I felt like I was going to church just for the sake of it, just doing something good. Never really had faith. So this was a good decision for me.”
In what way? “I have just learned to live in the moment, just enjoy my time while I’m here rather than focus on what has happened or what is about to happen. I used to really stress about those kinds of things before.
Alhamdulillah our Australian brother Montanna Ioane (@MontyIoane), a professional rugby player, has accepted Islam after being inspired by the Austrian MMA fighter Willi Ott who became Muslim. pic.twitter.com/MMbIUfMr8Q
— muslim daily ? (@BirdsOfJannah) July 13, 2020
“Like rugby, it was always my No1 and I was obsessed with it. It’s my job and it’s what I love to do but now I realise that rugby isn’t everything. I had a period where if I had a bad game I couldn’t sleep and it would literally take over me and I would start to be in a really bad place.
“Like even towards my family, which was not good because I really took it out on people if I had a bad game. I wouldn’t be satisfied unless the next game was a good game. That is how much rugby had taken over me. I reflected back on life a little bit and came to a realisation that rugby isn’t everything, that life is really valuable and precious and I should be enjoying it.”
Ioane is not alone in the Italy squad in practising Islam and learning the language. Prop Cherif Traore is a born Muslim who helps Ioane out, while he was also encouraged by the reaction he got from beyond his circle. “A lot of Muslim athletes reached out to me. Even Sonny Bill (Williams) himself who I didn’t know personally,” he revealed, going on to outline how Wilhelm Ott, an MMA fighter from Austria, inspired his conversion.
“He messaged me one time randomly. I’d just finished training and he asked what was I doing? I said nothing, I’m just about to go have lunch now. He said I’m about to leave Austria to drive over so I will be there tonight in six, seven hours. I saw him for dinner and he’s an amazing guy. The story behind him was out of this world. He had been to prison before and I was just blown away with how he just completely flipped the switch.”
It won’t be until April when Ioane experiences his first Ramadan, a month of fasting which he is curious about how it might impact the 95kg frame that has got him into the Test reckoning with Italy. “I’ve never fasted before because I love my food but we’ll see how that goes. During the pre-season, Cherif was fasting and he did an amazing job.”
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Amazing is also applicable to how Ioane currently looks, his body a tattooed monument to his family. Just like he swore he’d never come back to Europe to play rugby, he had insisted that body art was something he’d never indulge in. That restraint didn’t last.
“Originally my parents didn’t like tattoos and neither did I,” he explained. “I had my uncles and my brothers and they are all covered, completely covered, but I never planned on getting tattoos and was probably the last one in the family.
“I always said, ‘Nah, I’m not going to get it, they’re not nice, they don’t look good’. Then I was away in Thailand with my partner and one day just gave into temptation because it was so cheap there. I then ended up getting addicted to it and started getting things done that mean something. Pretty much every part of my body represents my daughters.
“I have got my head tattooed as well. The neck is a phoenix – that one was just me being young. On my hands, I have got the times my daughter was born. I’ve got a rose, their middle name is Rose. I have got two angels over here for my two little girls and I have got their portrait faces on my legs as well.
“Definitely every time I go in I always question myself, I always say the same thing over and over, ‘What am I thinking, what am I doing here? I got my stomach done. Took about three full days, nine hours straight each day, no break in between. I just cried into my phone, watched some YouTube to keep me busy. It’s not easy.”
No pain, no gain, as they say. Ioane will now sure look the part with Italy in the Six Nations.
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