‘I’m an Italian now’

South African-born lock Quintin Geldenhuys on playing for the Azzurri, the mixed emotions he felt when facing the Boks, and whether he’ll come back home.

Why did you move to Italy?
The opportunity came during my time at the [Mpumalanga] Pumas. The team had struggled in the 2004 Currie Cup, which led to sponsorship problems and their relegation from the Premier Division. A few of us, including Casper Steyn and Marius Goosen, received lucrative offers from various Italian clubs, and I made my move to Viadana in 2005. It was only supposed to be for a year but it went so well that I decided to stay longer.

Tell us about your early career.
I played schoolboy rugby at Hoërskool Monument and was selected for the Lions’ Craven Week team in 1999. I played for the Sharks U21 side after school and was part of the Baby Boks squad that won the World Cup in 2002. I then spent three seasons with the Pumas in the Currie Cup.

How did you adjust to the Italian lifestyle?
I have to admit that it was very difficult for me in the beginning. I couldn’t speak Italian when I arrived and the locals didn’t take kindly to that. You have to speak the language if you want to fit in, especially in a small town like Viadana. But things became easier once I got settled and started learning the language. Life started going well after the first season.

Do you miss South Africa?
I do miss it, especially my friends and family, and the sun. The weather here is terrible, especially during the winter with all the snow and rain. But having my wife Elizma with me helps a lot and I also socialise with the other Saffas playing club rugby here.

Are there a lot of South Africans playing rugby in Italy?
There’s Marius, Cornelius van Zyl and Marco Neethling at Treviso, and Stefan Basson and Schalk van der Merwe at Rovigo, just to name a few.

Do they also hope to play for Italy?
Yes. Everyone wants to play Test rugby and be part of next year’s World Cup.

How do you rate the standard of Italian club rugby?
I’d say the top three teams in the Super 10 are competitive, but the others are pretty poor. I’d compare the quality of the league to that of the Currie Cup First Division, although most of the teams here would struggle against most of the South African provinces. However, the Italian Rugby Union is trying to get our top two clubs to play in the Celtic League [that currently involves Irish, Scottish and Welsh clubs], which would be a huge boost in terms of developing the club rugby in Italy.

How did the opportunity for you to play for Italy arise?
When Nick Mallett was appointed as Italy’s coach back in 2007, I was playing my third season for Viadana. He spoke to me about the possibility of playing for the national side, but I had no ancestry in Italy and had to play 36 months of rugby before I qualified for Italian citizenship. In 2008, I was invited to train with the national side and I didn’t have to think twice about it as I’d always wanted to play Test rugby. I then made my debut against the Wallabies in Canberra last June and also played against the All Blacks in Christchurch.

As a foreigner, do you take pride in the Italy jersey?
Yes, I do and so do the other foreigners in the side, like [Australians] Craig Gower and Luke McLean. We all play with passion.

What was it like facing the Boks during their 2009 end-of-year tour?
It was very emotional for me. I had mixed feelings when I heard the South African national anthem and saw former Baby Bok team-mates like Schalk Burger and Jaque Fourie, but once the Italian national anthem played I realised where I was and who I was representing. I’m an Italian now and I have no regrets.

What was it like playing against Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield?
It was a great challenge playing against the best lock combination in the world. Every lock wants to be an enforcer like Bakkies, or a lineout kingpin like Victor. There wasn’t any bad blood between us just because I’m from South Africa. I managed to understand some of their lineout calls which helped me.

Are you Italy’s Bakkies?
That’s the type of role I have in the team. I’m an impact player who plays a big part in defence. I just need to work on my lineout skills, including my agility and jumping.

Is rugby a popular sport in Italy?
The game’s popularity is increasing every season and players like [Italy captain] Sergio Parisse are becoming idols. Rugby is probably the fourth biggest sport in Italy after soccer – everyone is soccer mad! – basketball and volleyball.

When will Italy start to beat the world’s best?
It’s not too far away. Instead of being satisfied with just being competitive, we are now aiming for victories. Our recent win against Scotland shows how far we have progressed. We scored a try and didn’t concede one. Our junior rugby systems have been established and there’s some great talent coming through.

How will Italy do in next year’s World Cup?
It’s going to be difficult because we have been drawn in a tough pool with Australia and Ireland. They will be favourites to advance to the quarter-finals, but we hope to cause an upset.

Have you received any offers from South African unions?
My agent Gerrie Swart told me about offers from the Stormers and the Bulls, but I decided that my future was in Italy. I won’t deny that money influenced my decision to stay here. The sad thing about southern-hemisphere rugby is that players don’t earn enough, so they move up north where all the money is. You get big bucks playing in England and France, and even in Italy. The amount of money spent on players in Europe is ridiculous!

Will you return to South Africa one day?
I definitely want to finish my career in South Africa, but I turn 29 this year and feel I have three seasons of international rugby left in me. After that I would consider signing for a South African union. I’m not sure who I’d join – I’m a Bulls fan – but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

By Gareth Duncan

– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine.