Italian Rugby
The Kiwi who changed his stripes
Tom Hamilton
October 4, 2013
Brendon Leonard enjoyed eight years at Waikato © Getty Images

Zebre. After being quickly created to replace the defunct Aironi at the end of the 2011-12 season, they faced a thankless task in their debut season last term. Despite a valiant effort from their contingent, they had a dreadful season.

Going into the current campaign following a year at the coalface of professional European rugby, they had failed to register a single win in either the RaboDirect PRO12 or the Heineken Cup.

It was a bleak existence for rugby players turning out for the Parma-based team. Expectations were low for the team heading into this season, many have questioned whether they deserve a place in the Heineken Cup and they are being used as an example of why the current system is out of kilt with the ever-modernising sport.

Zebre face a difficult challenge to promote the club, however,they have that capability to capture the imagination. Challenges do not get much bigger than the one facing Zebre's players this season.

Step forward former All Black Brendon Leonard. With his international career at an end and struggling for first-team rugby at the Chiefs, he needed a fresh challenge and opted for a move to Europe.

With 13 caps for the Kiwis, he would not have been short of offers, but after picking the brains of ex-Waikato No.8 Josh Sole, he ended up at Zebre, a team Leonard had never seen play before signing for them. On the face of it, it seemed a bizarre choice, but the potential of the club and the opportunity to help create history in the north of Italy proved to be too much of a lure.

"When I first looked at my future, my preference was to move to France or Italy," Leonard told ESPN. "Wikipedia came into it. I asked people about Italy and spoke to Wayne Smith and some other guys.

I came here to play at the highest level. We've got Toulouse next week and that's a draw card for anyone.

"Zebre were looking for a half-back and the challenge really appealed, it was a club in a completely different position to where I was with the Chiefs. I flew into Venice and team manager Fabio Ongaro met me. It was 40 degrees and I didn't anticipate that, I was the whitest person on the beach.

"I came over here not too sure what to expect and it's been a challenge with the language and what not but I'm enjoying the rugby and all the players have been fantastic about trying to make sure I was settling in well. It's all going pretty well. It's a young team and they're only in their second year but it's what I was hoping for.

"It was a bit of a stab in the dark as I had been in Hamilton my whole life, so it was the furthest thing possible from the Waikato."

But with any move to a new foreign country comes those inevitable cultural differences. Leonard will still be able to find some home comforts in Italy, but the difficulties come in seeking them or asking for them. And then comes the matter of on-field communication. His deal to join Zebre was completed in June and he arrived in Italy on August 23; not long to master a new dialect.

"It's a little bit slow; I had some lessons before I came over," Leonard explained. "Luckily, a fair number of the Italians want to practise their English on me but I need to make sure I keep using my Italian. During the games, fly-half Luciano Orquera can speak English so we normally communicate in that but I have the basic rugby-related Italian. Marco Bortolami (former Gloucester lock and club captain) can also speak really good English so he helps out with translating."

Treviso's Antonio Pavanello and Zebre's Roberto Quartaroli pose with the Heineken Cup, Circolo del Tennis, Rome, Italy, October 8, 2012
© Getty Images

A baptism of fire, but Leonard is showing no signs of shirking from the challenge; quite the opposite.

On September 20, Zebre made history.

The team who had never tasted victory, finally achieved the feat with that man Leonard grabbing the match-winning try to claim a 30-25 triumph for Zebre away at the Cardiff Blues, a team which included British & Irish Lions Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert.

"I thought we weren't far off a win after the previous couple of games and I knew that if we got a good 80 minute performance, we'd go close. They were attacking our goal line in the last few minutes and it was nerve-wracking. But the minute the full-time whistle went, you could see how much it meant to us."

While Zebre are slowly building, much of their future is dependent on the Heineken Cup. Many have been quick to show their shortfalls in a bid to raise their own claims for a greater share of revenue, but the tournament is still the lifeblood for much of Italian rugby. Would Leonard have chosen Zebre had there not been European rugby on offer? It is very unlikely - in Leonard's words, "I came here to play at the highest level. We've got Toulouse next week and that's a draw card for anyone."

While those at the top table of northern hemisphere are squabbling over what will happen next season, here's hoping they don't forget teams such colourful teams as Zebre and offer them mere crums.

Miracles won't happen overnight at the 3,500 capacity Stadio XXV Aprille, but as they build on their Italian roots and add that extra drop of class through players such as Leonard, then it is all moving in the right direction.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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