Rugby union: The day the Pini dropped at Richmond

Outspoken Australian full-back did not curb his tongue when things went wrong. Now he can see a bright future. By Tim Glover
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The Independent Online
MIDWAY THROUGH last season Richmond made the short journey to meet Harlequins in the Premiership and by half time had collapsed like a cardboard cut-out.

"I was beginning to wonder what on earth I'd let myself in for," Matt Pini, Richmond's Australian full-back, said. "That was the lowest of the low." It may only have been a couple of miles to The Stoop but for Richmond it almost amounted to a voyage of discovery. "People were affected by that defeat and some felt guilty about it," Pini said. "We had to hit that low in order to rebound."

It was time for a few home truths. The forwards were encouraged to talk about the backs and the backs about the forwards and Pini did not hold back. "I don't know whether I made too many friends at that time. I was quite vocal. I had something to say and I said it but I'm not sure many people liked it. On paper we had a very impressive squad but there was no consistency. I felt that some of the big names were letting themselves and the club down. The commitment wasn't there. They were cruising along and had no desire to play. They didn't turn up on time for training and even the way they dressed was sloppy. It was not what I expected. The first three or four months were very poor. I was disappointed with the skill level and the training methods."

The signs are that the heart to heart was a watershed for Richmond. To take a hammering is one thing; to take a hammering from Harlequins is something else altogether. After winning their last six games, Richmond climbed to fifth in the table. "In the professional era a misapprehension is that you have to train and train and train," Pini said. "More is not always better. Players need to peak on a Saturday not a Thursday. Once we addressed a few things the team started to gel and play well. The performances went up by about 100 per cent. My feeling now is that I couldn't have joined a better club."

John Kingston, the Richmond coach, regards Pini as the best full-back in England. Quick and elusive, he is central to the club's attack and will be the first name pencilled onto the team sheet when Richmond play the champions, Newcastle, at their new home, the magnificent Madejski Stadium, near Reading, on Saturday. "This time the attitude is completely different," Pini said.

Unfortunately for Richmond, Kingston is not the only man who rates Pini and, in an extraordinary development, a player once regarded, briefly, as the best full-back in Australia is about to spend part of the winter playing for Italy and will almost certainly feature in the World Cup qualifier against England at Huddersfield on 22 November.

The Pini clan, as he puts it, originated from Grosio in Lombardo before emigrating to Australia. Pini, who learned rugby as well as Aussie Rules football in Canberra before moving to Brisbane, has two passports, Italian as well as Australian. When he recently played for a side called the Penguins in Croatia, Roy Bish, a former Welsh coach, noticed the Italian passport and a phone call to Rome resulted in Pini spending a weekend in Italy with the Italian rugby authorities a fortnight ago.

"The whole thing is amazing," Pini said. "I'd never given the Italian connection a thought. They're very keen to see me play and I'd love to play for them. We'll just have to see if they think I'm good enough."

In his early teens, Pini spent weekends playing both RU and Aussie Rules before being capped by the Australian schoolboys and the under-21 side. After moving to Brisbane he played for Queensland and made his international debut in the 33-13 defeat of Ireland in 1994. The same season he played for the Wallabies against Italy.

Pini went to South Africa for the 1995 World Cup as Australia's first choice full-back, but was displaced by Matt Burke following the defeat by the Springboks in the curtain-raiser in Cape Town.

When Pini subsequently lost his place in the Queensland side - "their coach, in his wisdom, preferred the centre Tim Horan at full-back" - he was going to retire and return to his day job as a plumber. Then the phone rang.

An agent in Brisbane, a friend of Pini's wife Rebecca, told him of a club in England that needed a full-back. Pini rang Bob Dwyer, the former Australian coach who was then in charge at Leicester, for advice. "I knew nothing about Richmond but, as it happened, Bob said that he was also looking for a full-back so suddenly I had a choice. I opted for Richmond basically because Rebecca's parents were married there and it's close to London."

With big sponsorship from the American computer giant, the Oracle Corporation, a new state-of-the-art stadium, a revitalised squad that promises to work the oracle, and an international career that looks as if it is about to be resurrected at the age of 29, Pini (who is currently learning Italian) says he has no regrets. Well, perhaps one.

He and Rebecca, who has just landed a job as a film producer with Columbia Pictures, had to put their dog Enya, a two-year-old Rottweiler, in quarantine for six months at a kennels near Heathrow airport. "That shook us a bit," Pini said. "It's a silly law because Australia doesn't have rabies. Effectively she served an unnecessary jail sentence but it's good money for somebody."

After paying pounds 300 a month, the Pinis were reunited with Enya at their Twickenham apartment on Christmas Day. "At least it showed Richmond that I was completely committed to the club," Pini said.

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