Mauro Bergamasco was playing international rugby a year before Brian O’Driscoll pulled on an Ireland shirt and two years before Italy were allowed into the Six Nations. The veteran flanker, 36 in May, should probably be at home in Padova running a coffee shop or bar but no, he is still out there putting his body on the line for Zebre and, if he gets the chance, Italy.
Last month Jacques Brunel named Bergamasco in Italy’s Six Nations squad and if he gets on the field he will continue his run of having played in a Test match during every calendar year since 1998- some18 years on the trot. That’s despite various injuries and, it has to be said, a number of suspensions. Sometimes his physicality and fiery exuberance has run away with him.
Currently on 100 caps he is determined to add to that number and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Bergamasco could yet appear in his fifth World Cup which would see him join Gareth Rees and Brian Lima as the only players to have achieved that.
His captain Sergio Parisee, who was also a brother in arms for many years at Stade Francais, says: “I am in awe that Mauro is still playing at international level after all these season because I have seen how he puts his body on the line for quite a lot of that time.
“Mauro was a big inspiration for me when I first broke into the Italy team as youngster in 2002-3 when he was at the height of his career and his passion has always been important for the Italy team.
“It has not been an easy journey, first breaking into the Six Nations and then trying to establish ourselves against five of the best teams in the world every year in the tournament but Mauro has been there all the way. Many times when we have felt down he would talk to us about how we must keep going, how hard our predecessors had worked to get recognition for Italy.
“He is not getting any younger but he still shows passion and commitment – he helps set the ambiance of the squad. He is a link with the past and he helps inspire our younger players.”
In the land of football Bergamasco was nonetheless born to play rugby with his father Arturo a former Italian international and the coach with junior club Selvazzon. Younger brother Mirco has also inherited the rugby genes and has won 89 caps, most of them alongside Mauro.
Originally out of the Petarca club, Mauro made his Test debut in November 1998 against Holland in a World Cup qualifier, when he scored two tries, and a week later enjoyed a stormer against England at Huddersfield, a game Italy could have won if one or two decisions had gone their way.
A star was clearly born and these days he would probably have been snapped up immediately by a Premiership or T14 club, but in the early days of professionalism careers took a slightly different trajectory and three seasons with Treviso followed before he was eventually lured to Stade Francais.
An early international highlight came in 2001 when he shredded the Scottish backs at Murrayfield to score a memorable long range try, showing such pace that not for the first time Italy – and particularly John Kirwan – thought seriously about converting him to a wing. The most controversial change of positon came later his career, in 2009, when Nick Mallett switched him to scrum-half against England.
The experiment was an unmitigated disaster with mistakes from Bergamasco contributing to three first half England tries, after which Mallett had little option other than replacing him at the break. For such a proud man that will have hurt because a starting place at Seven was still his. He had moved to scrum-half only to help out.
“We had a lot of injuries – I think the top four of our regular scrum-halves were unavailable – and it was something Nick Mallett asked me to do,” recalls Bergamasco ruefully. “The team always comes first. Actually I thought there was just a chance it might work, that’s how you think as a player.
“I played in the backs as a centre at school and played on the wing in a Test match but it was an impossible quest against such a powerful team as England at Twickenham. Maybe you could make that switch in a club match or if you have had practice matches at scrum-half but, yes, it was crazy trying this for the first time against England. Still I tried, I did my best for the team.”
That was a chastening day for Bergamasco but there was a certain heroic dignity in trying to serve his team. His career low point had come the previous year, against Wales, when he was found guilty of gouging full-back Lee Byrne and banned for 13 weeks. No excuses can be offered although you could argue at some stage during such a long stint at the coalface and considering the passionate nature of the player, the sheer frustrations of always playing in an underdog side fighting the odds was going to result in an outburst of unacceptable behaviour.
It was unworthy of the man and you fancy one of the reasons he has kept on playing is to seek some kind of redemption and leave a better impression when he does finally hang his boots up.
“I really rated Mauro,” concludes old rival Lewis Moody. “For a good while when he was with Stade he was one of the best opensides in the world. They used to call me ‘crazy horse’ but Mauro was a fully paid up member of that club as well, he brought such intensity to the game all the time. With his ‘big hair’ and that warrior approach he has always reminded me of Jacques Burger or vice versa, they are peas from the same pod.”
*This article was first published in The Rugby Paper on February 1.
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