When Rugby World Cup 2021 kicks off this October it will feature a link to the inaugural tournament in the shape of Michela Tondinelli.
Former Italy scrum-half Tondinelli will travel to New Zealand as part of the Azzurre management team having been selected for the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.
It is the latest step on a journey that began “almost by accident” more than four decades ago, when Tondinelli accompanied her older brother to his first rugby training session and, aged only six, was asked to join in by the coach.
“So, it all started,” she told World Rugby matter-of-factly, admitting that to this day she finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was about rugby that hooked her in.
“Perhaps, because there was such a strong bond right from the start.”
From experiencing it as players to being there in a coaching capacity— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 1, 2022
Coaches from Fiji, Italy, Japan and Scotland have been selected to join the Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Programme
Rubbing shoulders with giants
Whatever attracted Tondinelli to rugby, the Italian clearly had a knack for the game, and she also possessed a desire to become the best player she possibly could.
That drive helped to propel her onto international recognition and in April 1991, when she was still only 16, Tondinelli travelled to Wales to compete in the first ever women’s Rugby World Cup.
She started each of Italy’s four matches at the tournament, including the opening encounter with England in which the Azzurre led the eventual finalists 9-4 at half-time in Llanharan, only to lose 25-9.
“It was like being inside a fairy tale, it was all fantastic,” Tondinelli said of her experience in Wales.
“For a 16-year-old girl, living rugby 24 hours a day was the best, right up until the match against England. Then you return with your feet on the ground.
“In front of you were the sacred giants of women's rugby of those years; I had people of the calibre of Emma Mitchell, Carol Isherwood, Gill Burns next to me. [It was] a dream.”
Tondinelli went on to represent Italy at two further Rugby World Cups, in 1998 and 2002, and her test career lasted for more than two decades.
Having been part of the Azzurre team that competed in the Women’s Six Nations for the first time in 2007, she played her last international six years later as a replacement in the 38-7 defeat to Spain that ended their hopes of qualifying for RWC 2014.
“Everyone asks me how I managed to play all these years at a high level,” she said.
“I believe that as long as there is passion and dedication you can do everything, then my luck is that I have never suffered serious injuries.”
Passing on her knowledge
Tondinelli’s coaching journey was already in motion before she finished playing. “I started with the children because I liked the fact that I could be useful to someone else and be able to share my vision of rugby,” she said.
“Then at the end of my career I decided to make it my job, passing from children to boys up to girls.
“My philosophy is simple: as I always say on the pitch, I'm not here to teach you how to play, but to try to convey my thoughts and ways of seeing rugby to you.”
As part of the Coaching Internship Programme, Tondinelli now has an opportunity to pass on her teachings to the current group of Italy players.
But she is keen to soak up as much knowledge and expertise as she can from the experience as well.
“I hope to learn as much as possible from this programme,” Tondinelli added. “Comparing myself with the other coaches and different rugby cultures will be fantastic.
“It will be a beautiful journey. My responsibilities will be to be able to train myself as a coach as much as possible.”
Getting the chance to develop her skill set on the road to a Rugby World Cup, one to be played in New Zealand, has only made the opportunity more appealing to Tondinelli.
“Over the years, all the tournaments have changed. From the evolution of the game to the organisation, from being more professional to the beginning of professionalism,” she said.
“The very thought that I will take part in a World Cup again is one I look forward to. Surely, this time there will be different emotions, and I will try to live them all to the full.
“Going to New Zealand has always been my dream. Ever since I started playing, I associated rugby with that land and knowing that I will really go there and also be part of my national team is a dream come true.”
Italy have been drawn alongside Canada, USA and Japan in Pool B of RWC 2021 as they bid to improve on their best ever tournament finish of eighth, recorded at the inaugural event in 1991.
The Azzurre squad has set a target of reaching the quarter-finals in October, but how far does Tondinelli think the team can go?
“I hope as far as possible,” she replied, keeping her cards close to her chest. “But we will see this in New Zealand.”