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FEATURE Juan Ignacio Brex: 'Italy made history, but it's not enough'

Juan Ignacio Brex: 'Italy made history, but it's not enough'
3 months ago

On the rutted Principality turf, Juan Ignacio Brex stood waiting for his television interview, a second-straight player of the match medal draped around his neck. Behind the camera, a clutch of Italian fans gestured wildly to him, holding out a plastic tumbler of beer. Brex needed no second invitation. He trotted across, sank the lager in one, had a Roman helmet thrust onto his bonce and embraced the revellers who have suffered through such torment to reach the glory of these scenes.

“I said, ‘yeah, here we go, let’s celebrate together’,” Brex tells RugbyPass. “These people came from Italy just to watch us. They spent a lot of money just for one day, just to see our game. It was really special. I appreciated them. They need recognition from us. They deserved the victory.”

Brex played every minute of Italy’s historic campaign. The Azzurri’s finest since their elevation to the top tier at the turn of the millennium. A draw in Lille that should have been a win, the ball toppling from Paolo Garbisi’s kicking tee just as the fly-half sized up the match-deciding goal. Victory over Scotland, their first Six Nations triumph in Rome for 11 years, backed up by a professional job on Wales, the Italians finally embracing the favourites tag and yanking themselves clear of the foot of the table.

Juan Ignacio Brex and his Italian team-mates savoured the party atmosphere among the travelling fans in Cardiff (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Federugby via Getty Images)

If this wonderous ascent was not preordained, Brex’s own part in it was even less likely. The centre grew up in a rugby-mad family in Buenos Aires and by his early twenties, was making an admirable fist of things in his native land. The Six Nations was something to watch on television, not a goal to chase.

He played for the famous Pampas XV, won age-grade and sevens honours, and represented Argentina in several non-cap internationals. Yet by 2016, Brex felt stagnant. He cast envious glances at the European scene and pondered how he’d get involved. His late grandfather’s family hailed from Sicilia, offering a precious route to Italy’s top flight. Brex decided to take a punt. He reached out to an old coach at the Viadana club, a couple of hours southeast of Milan. It would lead him to Benetton, Italian citizenship, and, after a prolonged paper trail and an Olympic sevens qualifying appearance, the blue jersey itself.

“I played a lot of tournaments in Argentina and I was happy,” Brex says. “But when I got to 24-25, I always wanted to play in Europe; I needed a new experience, new motivation. A coach from my first club was training the forwards at Viadana and he gave me an opportunity. I played for Viadana for a year and a half, then I was signed by Benetton.”

Brex fetched up in Italy a run-it-straight kind of centre, worlds away from the refined operator who set the Six Nations ablaze. He’s 6ft 3ins and close to 100KG and made brutal use of that bulk. It wasn’t until Andrea Masi arrived as Benetton’s backs coach in 2021, with Brex recovering from successive wrist injuries, that his full gamut of skills was unlocked.

Four years ago I broke my wrist twice and my pass was terrible, especially from left to right, because I couldn’t twist my wrist. I had to train a lot on my pass and pull-pass,

“In Viadana I was a different type of player, I liked to play one-on-ones, maybe I was bigger. Even the first years in Benetton it was the same. But four years ago, I broke my wrist twice and my pass was terrible, especially from left to right, because I couldn’t twist my wrist. I had to train a lot on my pass and pull-pass, and Andrea pushed me and changed my way of playing. I understood, I can still play one-on-ones, but now I have found another way, I have more options, I can carry, I can play-make, I can do things I couldn’t do before.”

International rugby is littered with ghosts for Italy. The spectres we thought were banished during Kieran Crowley’s reign loomed larger and more terrifying than ever during the World Cup. Ninety-six points shipped to the All Blacks; 60 more to rampant France. A humiliating end to the Kiwi’s tenure.

Italy were a gung-ho team under Crowley. That got them statement wins over Wales and Australia, zinger tries and highlight-reel moments. Gonzalo Quesada, the erudite Argentine hired to replace him, has infused that ambition with pragmatism and streetsmarts.

“It was terrible to end the World Cup like that – terrible,” Brex reflects. “No-one expects to take 90 points, even from the All Blacks, or 60 against France.

“We created a new attacking DNA with Kieran Crowley. In the past everyone thought of Italy as a slow team, very physical, scrum, maul… Kieran tried to change it.

“With the new staff, we had a new DNA and we had to use it. We had to attack like we know how, but we had to come back to the past, and bring back that passion, the big physicality. We needed to improve our kicking game, but Gonzalo told us, if we saw the opportunity, we had to take it. But we had to understand when to play and when not to play.”

Italy
Italy were shellacked by New Zealand and France, conceding a combined haul of over 150 points between the two pool games (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Italy lost narrowly to England and much less narrowly to the champion Irish before the madcap endgame in Lille. Brex bristled a little at the backslapping he witnessed after that match. The whole vibe felt a little patronising, like a pat on the head from an older, more successful sibling.

“At the beginning it was nice, when you have congratulations from all your friends and family. But one day, okay, stop it. I spoke with some teammates and said, ‘it’s enough, I don’t want people to still be congratulating me on a draw’. We play this game to win and we left a big opportunity out there. We didn’t want more congratulations. It was one more thing to motivate the team.

“We learned from the past. After we beat Namibia and Uruguay in our first World Cup games, we had a lot of claps and congratulations – ‘well done, now you have to beat New Zealand and France and you can do it, blah blah blah’. We thought, yeah, we can go for it. But just because people said so, maybe we didn’t keep our feet on the ground. And they killed us. That’s the truth. New Zealand showed us how to play in a World Cup and how to play rugby. France, the same.

“The team learned from this, we don’t want more of these things, patronising. Our mindset was wrong.”

Tommy is huge, super powerful. He is one of the guys who was maybe touched by God, and God says, ‘okay, you are the guy’.

Italy were being blown asunder by the Scots early in the fourth round. Too passive, too timid. They trailed 14-3 and 22-10 approaching the interval. Time was, they’d have crumbled to Roman ruins. But no longer. They wrenched themselves back into the game with breathtaking accuracy and clarity of purpose. Brex, who scored their first try, had his fingertips plastered all over the resurgence. The sold-out Olimpico shuddered and swayed.

“It was the first time in four years I’d played in front of a full Olimpico. The crowd was incredible and that atmosphere helped us win. When we were down by 12, the people were still encouraging us, motivating us. They gave us extra energy.

“In the past, when we were down 12 or 14 points, the game was gone, it was done. We said during the week, there will be tough moments, but after the second Scotland try, we talked a lot about our defence. We were being soft and we had to be much more aggressive with our line speed and attack them without the ball. If you are still ‘waiting’ in defence and attack, nothing will happen.

“The mindset from every player was incredible because even if only one man dropped from the system, at this level you are done.”

Wales and their rookies presented a different challenge. Italy do not cope well with expectation, partly because so little has been expected of them in previous championships. But they had Cardiff conquered inside an hour.

“We were favourites against Wales in Rome last year and they won. We can say the team is showing to ourselves and to the people we are growing up. These games are the examples of that. On the week of the Wales game, we spoke a lot about being favourites internally. Can we manage this expectation? We said, we are not favourites until we win the game. Only after we win can we come out and say we were favourites.”

The Italian midfield was the envy of the tournament; Brex and Tommaso Menoncello best in illustrious class. A decade separates 31-year-old Brex from his eye-catching partner. Menoncello calls him ‘Dad’. It’s a fusion of brawn and brain, power and pizzazz. Menoncello is a pure athlete, legs like a thoroughbred stallion with soft skills to match and a potent jackaler. Brex is the thread who knits Italy’s stellar backline cast together and leads their defensive structure with snarl. His handling is beautiful, particularly the slick pull-back passes. He can kick, carry and distribute in the heaviest of traffic. That’s where he operates best: on the front line, with flak zooming everywhere.

Benetton duo Brex and Tommaso Menoncello have struck up a phenomenal centre partnership in the blue of Italy (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Federugby via Getty Images)

“We are really different,” Brex says. “Tommy has more skill to beat defenders one-on-one, and I have more skills to play-make and put people in the best positions. I always try to put him in a one-on-one situation because 80% of the time he will win the contact, no problem. He is huge, super powerful. He is one of the guys who was maybe touched by God, and God says, ‘okay, you are the guy’. Physically, he has everything.

“I need to help the 10. The 10 cannot tell 14 other people what to do, I’m behind him making his life easier. I am the second playmaker.”

He beams when he talks about the tournament now, the joy of Rome and the quiet satisfaction of Cardiff.

“It was history; incredible. We talked after the last game: we don’t want to stop here. We made history but it’s not enough. We know it will be tough, it’s always tough for us. If we drop off in the game after, we are f***ed – sorry for the word – we will be destroyed. If we stay at this level, the future will be worse. We can’t give anything to the other teams. We need to keep improving.”

He beams even more when he talks about his people. Brex has a two-year-old daughter and two-month-old son, both born in Italy. The kids and Brex’s wife spent the Six Nations period back in Argentina where their families could help out.

“I feel super proud to represent my past, of my family’s support to get me here and of myself. I can show people they were wrong in the past to think things about my rugby. I can try to give back to Italy what they gave to me. From the first day I arrived in Viadana, the guys made me feel at home. They were incredible with me. I want to give that back to them.”

Comments

1 Comment
J
Jon 113 days ago

Awesome story. I wonder what a bigger American (SA) scene might have mean for Brex.

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