By Steffan Thomas
Stephen Varney, 19-years-old and a fluent Welsh speaker born in Pembrokeshire, will return to west Wales today for a first experience of Test rugby in his homeland.
But when he lines up at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli for his first international start, Varney will be wearing the blue shirt of Italy rather than Welsh red.
Il Canto degli Italiani – not Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – will be his national anthem.
It is a remarkable story, but Gloucester scrum-half Varney – who has come through the Italian system having qualified for the Azzurri through his mother Valeria – insists he will have no mixed emotions.
Still, it could all have been so very different.
“Wayne Pivac (the Wales head coach) did ring me once and he told me they were looking at me,” said Varney.
“I feel like Wales already have their number nines lined up for the future, but the main reason I chose Italy is because they’ve shown a lot of loyalty and respect to me. I wanted to show a bit back.
“I’ve grown up in the Italian culture since I was young. It comes through my mum and grandparents. “I feel Italian in my heart.
“My dad did suggest to me to wait it out a bit and he did try to advise me, but at the end of the day it’s my decision. I took his advice on board, but Italy felt right in my heart.”
Watchers of Italy’s Autumn Nations Cup defeat by France last weekend may have picked up on Varney speaking Welsh with top Wales official Nigel Owens.
The Gloucester scrum-half is a former pupil of Ysgol y Preseli in Crymyrch, but his Italian lineage can be traced back to World War II where his great grandfather Luigi Calligari was a prisoner of war at Henllan near Newcastle Emlyn.
When battle ended in 1945, Luigi opted to stay in Wales.
A good 75 years later, his great-grandson is back in west Wales again.
“My grandparents have spoken Italian to me since I was young,” said Varney.
Italy have handed teenage scrumhalf Stephen Varney a start against the country of his birth as they take on Wales in Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup clash in Llanelli. https://t.co/Ek28R9riRh
— Reuters Sports (@ReutersSports) December 3, 2020
“I couldn’t really speak much back, but since I’ve been playing for Italy I’ve been picking up more and more of the language.
“I’m not fluent yet, but I am trying hard to learn. It will be a very emotional occasion for me to play at Parc y Scarlets.
“I’m from west Wales so playing in Llanelli is a big thing for me, but I can’t get carried away and I’ve just got to think of it as another game.
“I can’t fall into the trap of over thinking it, but it will be a special occasion. Ever since I was born, I’ve been immersed in Italian culture and it’s such an honour to be representing Italy.
“I represented Italy at Under-18 and Under-20 level, so I feel loyalty to them. It just felt right.”
Varney, whose father Adrian played first-class rugby for Aberavon and Neath in the early 1990’s, thought his hopes of becoming a professional might be over when he was overlooked by the Scarlets.
Great photo. John Davies, Kevin Phillips, Brian Williams, Varney? Moriarty, Reynolds Webster… Who’s the other Neath player in pic? pic.twitter.com/JohQVgBCOI
— Gareth Owain (@ga_twin1) November 29, 2018
But he was soon offered a place at Hartpury College and ended up in the Gloucester Academy.
Hartpury might be best known for producing a plethora of England internationals, but it has also more than played its part in the development of the Italian national side.
“I originally played for Scarlets Under-16’s West, but didn’t get selected for their academy,” Varney, who will win his third Italian cap against Wales, said.
“I went for a trial at Hartpury, got a place there, and then I managed to get into the Gloucester Academy. Everything kicked on from there.
“Hartpury has developed a number of world-class internationals. They’ve helped bring through a lot of Italian players like Seb Negri, Jake Polledri and Callum Braley. It’s a fantastic institution and they are great at developing professional sportsmen be it in rugby, football or golf.”
It was at Hartpury that Varney became close with his now Gloucester team-mate Louis Rees-Zammit and the two teenagers will be on opposing sides this afternoon.
Varney – a number nine with a promising all-court game for a man so young – knows Italy will have a point to prove against Wales. As an individual he also wants to show what Wales missed out on.
Italy have had a miserable year and are yet to win in 2020. They were thumped 42-0 by Wales in February, but since then Pivac’s side have only one of eight Tests.
“Louis is a good mate of mine and we came through the Gloucester system together,” said Varney. “I’ve already played against him in the past for Italy Under-18’s.
“He’s a great player and I’m looking forward to coming up against him. I don’t really know the Welsh players personally.
“I left Wales when I was 16 so our paths didn’t cross. I obviously know Louis well and I’ve played against the likes of Callum Sheedy, Tomas Francis and Ioan Lloyd in the English Premiership.
— Italrugby (@Federugby) December 3, 2020
“Wales may not have got the results they’ve wanted, but they’ve still got some great players in their side. Their performance against England was good so they’ll be a handful.
“We are targeting this game, but we do play every game as if it’s our last.
“We were very unlucky against Scotland and despite the scoreline we had a good 60 minutes against France so we feel we aren’t far away from breaking our losing streak.
“Wales will be tough, but we are confident we can compete.”