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The making of Capuozzo: 'That's where his intelligence comes from'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Federugby/Getty Images)

Ten seconds was all it took last March for Ange Capuozzo to magnificently create the memory of a lifetime with Italy. Down on the scoreboard and with the clock against them in Cardiff, the Test-level rookie took a pass from Edoardo Padovani on 78:16 and cut loose from the middle of the pitch, 15 metres inside his own half.

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He initially stepped left, then arced back to his right, going on to brilliantly evade Josh Adams on the 10-metre before embarking on a wonderful mazy run into opposition territory to further detonate the defensive cover. Drawing the final defender approaching the try line, he whipped a slick pass inside to his left with the clock now on 78:26 and the rest was history.

Padovani collected and the try he scored was converted to secure Italy their first championship win since 2015, back when Capuozzo was just a wide-eyed 14-year-old teenager living in Grenoble with dreams of becoming an Italian rugby hero very much in their infancy.

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The epic try that came out of nothing left Stephen Aboud jumping for joy back in Italy. Six years of hard toil he had spent there as head of player and coaching development – which included running the U20s national team – had just culminated in this one sumptuous Test-level moment under Kieran Crowley. Aboud’s phone exploded.

“It was just ridiculous,” he joked with RugbyPass. “Half the calls were from people in Ireland, which was just a wonderful experience, saying, ‘My God’. It wasn’t that people weren’t celebrating an Italian win, it was a lot of people actually celebrating a Welsh defeat. It was so funny.

“You knew when Padovani got the ball he wasn’t going to do it. You knew he was just going to throw it to Ange but once Ange put his head down and went ‘the plan is out the window here’, you have to react to this guy because he doesn’t know any other way but to attack which makes him an incredible buy this season for Toulouse. That is the club he should be in because they just go for it and that is the kind of player that he is.

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“Even while he was doing it you were cheering and going, ‘Wow, he is doing it’, but you were wondering, was there going to be someone reading off his shoulder because you can’t score on your own, a lot of the time you need someone to pick up on what you are doing. Lucky enough, (Ross) Moriarty pushed Padovani in the back (entering the Welsh 22) which brought him up level with Capuozzo. The irony was he [Moriarty] was pushing Padovani forward and that got Ange the support.

“Listen, it was a wonderful moment. There were so many moments in the past when Italy were really, really close in the last three or four years when I was there but we just couldn’t finish it, so we got a bit of luck and Ange took the opportunity… for those who work in the business it reinforced a lot of what you are trying to do – and it makes people pay attention.

“So it was wonderful but it didn’t mean that if Italy didn’t score he [Capuozzo] wasn’t and isn’t a good young player, like a lot of the young guys, coming through. It was the same with the U20s. We came so close to winning a lot of matches at U18s and 20s the first couple of years but if you want to win consistently, the work you do has to be deliberate – not an accident – and that [the dramatic Test win in Cardiff] is where you get to.”

It was the old Azzurri boss Conor O’Shea who hatched the plan to get Aboud to Italy in 2016 to develop the FIR’s elite player pathway from nothing. Having pioneered the Irish system in the 1990s, he established an enviable U17 to U20s programme that is now reaping rewards. The top 130 U17 and U18 left home to attend specially selected schools in four regions for two years. Then at U20s, the cream of the crop entered another year of academic and rugby education at one specialised venue. Excellent.

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Now, quality youngsters are teeming through the Italian system. Their U20s came within a last-second missed kick of beating France on Friday night in Treviso. And just look at the fresh-faced contingent that will run out on Sunday at Stadio Olimpico for the Six Nations Test match against Les Bleus, the likes of the 20-year-old Tommaso Menoncello and the just-turned 22-year-old Lorenzo Cannone alongside the now 23-year-old Capuozzo, who became World Rugby young player of the year in November.

“Ange is lovely, very easy to coach as are a lot of the guys but in particular he just soaks up what you are saying and is not just going to accept it. He is going to talk about it, debate it, and then when he is convinced he is just going to do it. There is nothing negative about him.

“I saw some clips on YouTube when he was awarded young player of the year and he came across as a young person with a lot of humility, honesty and passion. You went, ‘That’s him exactly’. He was exactly as he had been (at U20s), a really authentic guy who cares about his family and a wonderful guy to work with. But it’s not just him, there are a lot of other guys that we can say the same thing about, guys like Ireland’s Garry Ringrose. Those nice guys in rugby, you can’t say anything bad about them.”

So why did the French-born Capuozzo want to plug into Aboud’s Italian age-grade setup? “Ange came from Grenoble because his grandparents moved to France and he grew up there and when we saw him first, when we were tracing him during the year because he wanted to declare for us at U19s player, he was a scrum-half. That is where his intelligence comes from, from being in the middle of everything.

“He grew up as a scrum-half, a very good scrum-half, and his secondary position was full-back. Given the squad we had that age, it was the Garbisi squad, the Paolo squad, and we had a great opportunity to pick him. Primarily his rugby growing up would have been in France and that is why in some ways he wouldn’t be as big as some of the other guys.

“If you look at Paolo and Menoncello, these guys are 15 kilos of muscle heavier. So when you ask about Ange, he is absolutely talented and really fitted the type of rugby philosophy we were following in our technical direction in the last seven years. It isn’t enough to look at players, it’s what are those players going to do that is what is really important otherwise you are just picking ingredients without a meal.

“We identified the type of meal we wanted to cook, started to look at the type of ingredients we needed to find and develop and Ange was just one of those and the good news is – just wait for the rest! I wouldn’t want to just highlight Ange because it would be doing an injustice to the other guys coming through now who are really exciting players too.”

Without a pause, Aboud briskly reeled off a list of contenders that were full-time in the Italy age-grade system, unlike Capuozzo who flitted in and out when rising up the Grenoble Pro D2 ranks. Names such as Zebre’s Jacopo Trulla, who played for the Barbarians in November. “He’s something else.” Benetton’s Menoncello: “He beat three players and finished from 40 against Stade last month and is younger than Ange.” And Bordeaux’s Federico Mori: “Absolutely like a tank. His uncle ran in the Olympics in the 400 metres, so he has the DNA.”

Numerous other names followed. “Exceptional guys. At the moment there is something like 24 guys in that senior group, give or take a few injuries, that are the result of the work put in since 2016. It’s simple. We don’t have school sports and didn’t have schools rugby so when you identify that you go, ‘Okay, how are you going to make up all that contact, all that education?’

“Very simply you say we need to control it so if you can have access to the players and if you can control what they do, you can increase the quality and if you do it successfully over four or five years, you are going to get the accumulation of that work. That was the key and a huge aspect of that was the right physical conditioning because we had them under our control every week in that three or four-year period. We could really maximise their development.

“You start with the tiny p of potential, you see the ingredients but then you have to cook and if you do that with good cooks more often then you’re going to get a good meal. It’s no secret, elite player development, but it would not have been possible to have done it that fast without the quality of staff.

“The system had been proven before in Ireland and in Italy we just had to do it with fewer resources, starting from scratch and seeing if we could do it in the minimum amount of time which was five or six years. So yeah, it’s nice to know that it isn’t rocket science.”

While he revelled in the moment of the Padovani try in Cardiff last year, the jubilant celebration was out of character for Aboud. He normally keeps his emotions in check, his perspective always being to look to the future and not the here and now. “When you work in the type of role that I do you are always looking at the future because the focus is on what comes down next,” he explained.

“So even though you kind of celebrate it [a win] you are always thinking three or four years, so you don’t celebrate it the way that supporters do because your focus is always on the people you have to work with and develop. You’re always thinking about making it better than it is now.

“I remember I bumped into Gordon D’Arcy on the street years ago when he became an Ireland international. It was outside the old Jurys hotel and he said, ‘How’s it going, what are you doing?’ I said. ‘Well, I’m trying to develop the next player to take your place’. That’s what we sign up to do.”

That targeted development and the time it takes to reach fruition is why Aboud has no truck with the ‘Get Italy out of the championship’ narrative surrounding the Guinness Six Nations. “You’d have to throw Wales and Scotland out of the U20s,” he retorted, explaining that the tournament is essentially a club where the emphasis is on all six countries improving across the board.

“Six Nations is defined by the six nations in Europe competing and at the end of the day, someone has to be at the bottom. There is a reason they are there, but do you kick them in the head or do you say, ‘Come on, let’s see what we can do here?’ I don’t really get involved in that debate because it doesn’t hold a lot of logic and it is usually that is spoken about by people who have never been involved in the business.

“As I say, if you’re going to go down that line then you need to chuck out a lot of teams that are tier-one teams out of a lot of competitions. Do you really want to do that? Is that the way you really want to go or is the Six Nations about an event, experiencing places like Rome?”

Aboud’s nurturing work with the Italian federation is now sadly finished. Being away from Ireland during the pandemic took its toll and as great as the talent production line became in recent times, the FIR came under fire from grassroots clubs who no longer want their young players attending centralised academies. Aboud read the room and arrived back in Ireland last July.

There’s still a bit of consultancy with Benetton, as well as the staging of personal effectiveness workshops for other businesses, but his next big rugby project is undecided. “I wanted to spend time at home with my family, take a deep breath, look at the rugby world and figure out what is the next challenge is.

“I’m not going to take on a challenge that isn’t with the right people because it won’t work. You need to work with the type of people who can stay positive, who can stay motivated when you’re not winning. You need to work with people who can stay focused, who have a passion and who want to improve. I’m trying to find the right people and the right project that is going to sustain me for the next couple of years.

“Hopefully, in the next few months, I will have a fair idea but I wanted to step back and have a look because I have been doing this [elite player/coach development] for nearly 33 years. I’ve had some interesting approaches but they were just at that moment not the right thing. They were just far too soon to be away again, but now I’m starting to think what the next four or five years will be.”

Having now had some months to reflect, what’s the legacy of Aboud jumping out of his comfort zone in Ireland and going to Italy? “Everybody should take a risk, everybody should take a challenge, not just professionally but in their lives when the time is right,” he enthused. “I previously had all the control. Everything was put in place in Ireland, the technical direction, the technical models, the staff. Everybody was aligned in Ireland.

“To go to a country where you don’t speak the language, it’s a different culture, they don’t have school sport, they are at the bottom of the pot in terms of perception of where they are – it was a challenge that I knew was either going to kill me or develop me to the level that I knew I couldn’t be developed to had I stayed in Ireland as a person in life. That was the motive behind it and having finished, I’d do it again.”

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