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FEATURE Stephen Varney: 'I would wake up in the morning and feel physically sick'

Stephen Varney: 'I would wake up in the morning and feel physically sick'
3 months ago

Stephen Varney is proof that things can change fast in rugby union, as in life.

This time last year, the Italy scrum-half headed into Super Saturday week facing a looming Six Nations whitewash as Netflix cameras documented his personal struggles with confidence and anxiety.

Fast forward 12 months and Varney says he is in “the best spot I’ve ever been” with his mental health as he heads to Cardiff on the back of a match-winning try over Scotland that ended Italy’s 11-year wait for a home win in the Championship and left them unbeaten in two.

Varney’s willingness to put his vulnerability in the public eye for the ‘Six Nations: Full Contact’ documentary, which sought to bring one of the sport’s greatest tournaments to the attention of a new and global audience, was laudable.

Stephen Varney
Varney’s try against Scotland gave Italy a lead they held onto in a tense final quarter in Rome (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Federugby via Getty Images)

Thrust into the macho, high-pressure world of Test rugby with a struggling Azzurri side aged just 19 in 2020, the softly spoken Gloucester man soon found himself struggling to cope, but he is now fast becoming something of an ambassador for mental health in the sport.

“I had confidence issues when I first made my debut for Italy,” Varney tells RugbyPass.

“My first 10 caps were hard mentally. I would wake up in the morning and feel physically sick.”

Something had to change. Varney’s work with professionals has since helped him tackle the psychological hurdles, while sparking a realisation that a balance of attention on body and mind was required.

I think everyone suffers with some sort of mental health. It’s important to open up and be brave about it, because it might help someone else talk about what they are feeling.

“It’s hard to prepare for what’s to come really until you experience it. Coming through the academy, they always try and prepare you for the next step,” Varney explains.

“The next step for me was the Premiership at the time and then the next step from that was international. The step up from Prem to international was massive pressure-wise.

“When I was first involved, I was 19, I was new to the professional game, and being chucked into such high-pressure games was tough mentally.

“It was important for me to adapt quickly and get my mental health in a good spot and work on it, make it strong. I’m in a really good spot now, probably the best spot mentally I’ve ever been.

“I think everyone suffers with some sort of mental health. It’s important to open up and be brave about it, because it might help someone else talk about what they are feeling.

“It’s not an issue at all, you’ve just got to work on your mental health like you work on your physical health. They are both on a par, both very important.”

Stephen Varney
Italy were finally able to celebrate ending a 26-match run of home defeats in the Six Nations (Photo Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)

Should Varney, who admitted it was “strange” to see himself on TV, star in season two next year, his match-winning score against the Scots is sure to feature as the climax to a comeback that would make a Hollywood scriptwriter proud.

Varney came off the bench at a sold-out Stadio Olimpico to dart through a gap in the Scottish defence and dot down a score that proved enough to put the Azzurri out of reach and sent a 70,000-strong crowd into a state of euphoria.

“It was amazing. It was off the back of a team effort and the boys did well to get us there, I had the easy job of putting it over the line,” Varney said of his try.

“It was very special. That was the loudest I’ve ever heard the Olimpico. The fans were amazing that day and it was amazing to get the win at a packed-out stadium. It was a special day for them and hopefully inspired some new fans as well.”

In the last year or two, we are a much better team than we were five or six years ago, a completely different team. We’re in a better spot now and we can be competitive over the next however many years.

Italy’s win could easily have been their second in a row, had Paolo Garbisi’s last-play penalty not heartbreakingly struck the post to deny them a historic win in France two weeks earlier in a 13-13 draw.

Although there was a bruising defeat in Ireland in week two, Gonzalo Quesada’s Azzurri pushed England closer than ever before on the opening weekend in a three-point defeat and head to Cardiff on Saturday with their tails up.

Under former coach Kieran Crowley, the mantra around the Italian side was about winning back respect and credibility, something this talented young side have finally achieved after years of having to absorb sneering jibes and calls to boot them out of the Six Nations.

“I’ve been ignoring the chat really, but obviously people have had this thing about relegation in the Six Nations,” Varney said.

“But results speak for themselves. In the last year or two, we are a much better team than we were five or six years ago, a completely different team. We’re in a better spot now and we can be competitive over the next however many years.

“Hopefully we’re like the new Scotland. They had a rough patch at one point, and they have come through and got some consistency. Hopefully we will be doing the same.”

Gonzalo Quesada
Gonzalo Quesada has made a good impression since succeeding Kieran Crowley as Italy’s head coach (Photo Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Federugby via Getty Images)

“Hopefully we’re like the new Scotland. They had a rough patch at one point, and they have come through and got some consistency. Hopefully we will be doing the same.”

Now 22, the scrum-half has 28 caps to his name and has been smack bang in the centre of an upsurge for Italian rugby that started under Crowley with wins over Wales and Australia in 2022 and has continued with Quesada this year.

Varney isn’t the only youngster to be a regular for this side, with the likes of No.8 Ross Vintcent and centre Tommaso Menoncello, both 21, and last week’s 23-year-old debutant Louis Lynagh – who Varney revealed has been given the nickname ‘Luigi’ – all impressing at this year’s tournament.

It’s seriously exciting. There are all these young players coming through and we’re a young squad as well,

Additionally, Italy’s Under-20 side have continued to pull up trees, thrashing Scotland, earning a historic away win in France and losing by a single point in Ireland this year to create even more buzz about what the future holds for Italian rugby.

“It’s seriously exciting. There are all these young players coming through and we’re a young squad as well,” Varney said.

“The competition is always good and hopefully we go into this World Cup cycle now not with a fresh start, but with something to get excited about.”

Quesada, who guided Stade Francais to a Top 14 title and European Challenge Cup trophy, was something of a surprise appointment last year, given Crowley’s popularity and success and the Argentinean’s lack of any prior international head coach experience.

But the former Pumas fly-half quickly made an impression on the peninsula, conducting his opening press conference in November in fluent Italian – his fourth language – and vowing to add some defensive steel to the free-flowing style seen under Crowley.

Although Quesada has rotated the No. 9 shirt between Varney, Martin Page-Relo and Alessandro Garbisi, the Gloucester man has relished the “good competition” and been impressed by his new coach.

“I think since Kieran came in two years ago, that was the start, he pushed us to a point and now hopefully Gonzalo will take us to the next step,” Varney said.

“It’s all about consistency now because we’ve had a few wins over the years, but we just need to keep doing it week in, week out.”

“They are both great coaches and great men,” he added.

“I’ve enjoyed working with Kieran over the last two years and I’m enjoying my time now with Gonzalo. I just hope now we can push on even more and be a competitive force in international rugby.”

Edouardo Padovani
Italy are chasing back-to-back wins in Cardiff after Edoardo Padovani’s dramatic late winning try two years ago (Photo Alex Livesey/Federugby/Getty Images)

The search for consistency will certainly be helped if Italy can make it back-to-back wins at the Principality Stadium on Saturday – a result that would represent their best ever Six Nations campaign and could even secure a top-half finish in the table depending on events in Dublin and Paris.

Two years ago, the Azzurri ended a 36-game losing streak in the Championship with a spectacular last-gasp Ange Capuozzo break setting up Edoardo Padovani for a match-winning try that sparked tear-drenched Italian celebrations.

For Varney, who wasn’t involved that day, it is an extra special fixture as he comes up against the land of his birth.

Born in Carmarthen to a Welsh father and Italian mother, Varney is a fluent Welsh speaker with many links to his opponents on Saturday.

One who will be conspicuous by his absence, however, is former Gloucester team-mate and close friend Louis Rees-Zammit, whose decision to leave rugby union in pursuit of a career in the NFL stunned the rugby world in February – but not Varney.

“I always knew he had an interest in the NFL, it was just a matter of when really,” Varney said.

“I’m massively proud of him backing himself to go give it a shot, because what’s the worst that can happen? If he doesn’t make it, he can come back to rugby. Hopefully he does well and gets picked up.”

We can’t underestimate Wales at all. I know they’ve lost four games, but that doesn’t mean anything at all

The opening game of Super Saturday is a big one for both sides, with Wales smarting from four consecutive defeats and risking an embarrassing whitewash and a first wooden spoon since 2003.

Defeat for Italy could still see them pick up the wooden spoon on bonus points, despite earning a win and a draw already, but Varney insists that complacency will not be an issue after the high of beating Scotland.

“We can’t underestimate Wales at all. I know they’ve lost four games, but that doesn’t mean anything at all,” Varney said.

“They will be at home and fired up, because they know this is a massive game for them. We will be fired up for it as well.

“I’m sure it will be a tough battle. With the experience we’ve had this Six Nations, I think we’re in a good spot. But we need to go out there and put a performance in that we’re happy with.”

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