South African-born Lorenzo Masselli hoping to make it big in Italian rugby
CAPE TOWN - While Lorenzo Masselli is certainly focused on doing the most he can in his young rugby career, he’d be quick to tell you that so much that happens off the field contributes to what you achieve on it. Hence – rugby is rugby, but it’s not only rugby.
The 23-year-old South African-born forward, schooled at St. John’s College, has played 17 matches for the Italy Under-20 side after joining the Italian Academy in January 2016.
Things happened quickly for Masselli, who played 40 games for Top 12 Lyons before getting an offer to sign a two-year deal with Zebre. By March 2016, he had earned a starting berth for their Six Nations clash against Wales after his debut against Ireland, before being selected as part of the squad for the World Rugby Under-20 Championships in England in June.
Proving that, for him, it’s not just about what happens on the field, the versatile forward also enrolled for his undergraduate degree at Bocconi University in Milan, where he’s currently working towards completing a BCom in Economics and Management.
“I think I’ve learnt a lot coming overseas,” Masselli said. “When you meet all these people you kind of understand how privileged you are to have this sport and to be playing it, to have everything around you.”
Masselli had worked closely with former UCT IKEYS head coach Kevin Musikanth in 2015 - who served as director of rugby and mentor at St. John’s - before packing up and heading abroad, and it was a time during which he not only learnt a lot, but also grew to back himself more.
“For me, having Kevin believe in me was such a strong thing, and I didn’t realise it at the time, but that pushed me to come to Italy and believe in myself. I had to develop myself, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not had the influence of previous coaches and my parents. How you develop is so important, because it can influence how you play. Having a good relationship with your coaches and family is really important. You need to build yourself in other areas of your life, too. I get what Kevin was saying - rugby is rugby, but it’s not only rugby.
“I played rugby with my age group, but I played cricket with guys who were much older, I played in the first team from when I was 14. Kevin came on my path when I was playing Under-17 and then during a Wynberg Rugby Festival he came and spoke to me and said that he thinks I have a special talent and that I could take rugby further. At that point I hadn’t really thought about it, but he planted the idea. I was in two minds deciding which sport to go for – in cricket I played for the Gauteng team U17 and all the years before that, and a I also had this rugby option.
“I didn’t make the Gauteng U19 cricket team and I was kind of upset about that. In my matric year we had the St. John’s Rugby Festival and there was an Italian team. I think they must have figured out I was Italian, they watched me play and managed to contact me and my dad. They were interested in me coming over to go into the national Italian academy. So, by the end of that year, after I had finished matric, I spoke to Kevin about it and asked him if he really thought I had the talent to do it, because if I was going to do it, I wanted to go full-on, and he said ‘yes’. He gave me the confidence to do that.”
As things change and the game continues to evolve, so do certain former ‘position-specific’ requirements. For example, gone are the days where only ‘fetchers’ were required to do the fetching. Scavenging is a role that has spread further than just the No 6 or 7 jersey (depending on where you’re from). Nowadays, it’s one that we’ve seen players in other positions do so well you’d swear it was stipulated in their contracts. That versatility and transitioning, while nothing new, is something that also applies to those who do their business in the second row and loose trio, and Musikanth believes Masselli can take it from lock and flank and ace the test at No 8 as well.
“I helped Lorenzo daily with conditioning specifically for the Italian academy and also with rugby specific work on the field, in order to get him ready to give Italy his best shot. He worked really hard during the two months proceeding his departure, he probably lost count of the amount of contact bags he had to hit to get ready to realise his potential and play for Italy,” Musikanth continued.
“He’s is a bright boy, and they’ve obviously realised that because they’ve now moved him from lock to flank…you get smarter as your number gets higher, you know,” he quipped.
“I think he’s a jumping lock and will develop into a very, very mobile, modern-day forward. He’s 110 kilos, so it’s not like he needs to get much bigger, but he probably will, before you look around, he’ll be a Pieter-Steph. He was a cricketer so his hand-eye coordination is unbelievable. He was taking the ball from the Paarl Boys locks with no lifters. The way he sees the ball... He is well-supported but, besides that, he has the mental fortitude. There is a checklist, and he’s got all of the things on the checklist.
"He’s playing openside now, if he’s not going to play No 4, then I think he could play 8. He’s fast, he’s got great skill, he’s clever and he reads the game well. Coaches are often just looking at the next game and not looking at where this the player can go in the future.
“Let’s say he’s wanting to get a look-in with the senior national side and they use him at openside flanker, then you’ve got guys like Hooper, guys who were created as openside flankers, not lineout options. Lorenzo is a massive lineout option. He’s still young, I don’t know where he’ll ultimately fit into the senior national team, but he has International quality for sure.
Masselli added: “I think the way the game is developing in terms of the lineout, everybody’s got to be an option. If you’ve got flankers who can’t jump, you’re going to have to go with six-man lineouts all the time. Until now been in at the lineout, whether it’s a five-man, four-man, six-man, or a full lineout.
“So, they’ve used me as a lineout option and a ball-carrier and defensive man at openside, so my role has been to just win the lineout, be involved heavily at the set-piece and then outside of that just be mobile, get wide and try and use space and skill to get momentum and forward ball."
Musikanth, who’s worked with a great range of players at school, club, and national level, believes that, for a coach, one of the keys to ensuring players develop fully and ultimately become the best players they can be is to know the player and the network around him, not just the guy putting on the jersey.
“Coaches can’t develop a player without knowing the player. If you’re making a player hit a bag over and over again, that’s going to become frustrating and sore for him, but if you’re making him do it and you’ve explained to his father why you’re doing it, it makes a difference. It’s not just hitting the bag. It’s like a detachment or an attachment, and you have to really work on that attachment. It’s a hard thing because as coaches you have to want to win and be this animal and you have to be hard on your players, but you also have to attach yourself to your players and to what’s good for that player’s life, because if they don’t get that, they’re not going to make it, no matter how good they are,” he said.
Where the role of coaches is concerned, Masselli’s sentiments didn’t differ much from Musikanth’s: “Sometimes coaches just look at winning games, they don’t look to the future. There needs to be a long-term goal for a player’s development as well because the way they develop can have a big impact on the team’s performance in the future. I think it’s very important that coaches and players have that relationship and that trust that they are being developed in the best way they can be."