Aggression is feature of Italian rugby as it suits our fiery nature

Emanuele Palladino, a professional rugby union player for Roma, talks about the game in Italy as they prepare to tackle England this weekend
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I remember taking a cab when I arrived in Italy to take up my contract with Roma rugby club. During the hair-raising ride the driver politely asked me what I did. When I told him I was a rugby union player, a brief pause was followed by a hesitant response: "Oh yes, that's the game with the oval-shaped ball, isn't it?"

I remember taking a cab when I arrived in Italy to take up my contract with Roma rugby club. During the hair-raising ride the driver politely asked me what I did. When I told him I was a rugby union player, a brief pause was followed by a hesitant response: "Oh yes, that's the game with the oval-shaped ball, isn't it?"

Italy is a country synonymous with its love of football, Ferrari and world-famous fashion houses, where la dolce vita inspires images of lazy days ambling through a labyrinth of cobbled streets opening out on to piazzas adorned by cafés and restaurants. But where does rugby fit into all of this? Trying to build up a sport against a backdrop of limited public awareness and knowledge is a Herculean task.

I am playing in my second season as a professional rugby player in Italy. I was born and raised in Epsom and played representative age-group rugby for Surrey. Because of my qualification through my Italian father, I played for the Italian Under-19 side and spent time with the national set-up.

Since returning to Italy, I have encountered a country determined to gain acceptance and make strides to bridge the gap between itself and the other Six Nations countries. One of the lures of playing in Italy, of course, is the lifestyle: cafés, mouth-watering food and a culture where even the policemen wear Prada. Nevertheless, any thoughts of an easy ride where rugby is concerned are soon dispelled.

The Super 10 is Italy's premier league of 10 clubs which, despite lacking the technical finesse of the Zurich Premiership, remains at a competitive standard. Below that there are four divisions comprised of semi-professional and amateur teams, and here the gradient in quality declines quite rapidly.

One of the defining features of Italian rugby is the players' aggression; their fiery and passionate nature sits well with the physical demands of rugby. When channelled it is a potent and effective weapon, but it often spills over into violence or foul play. In many cases this is borne out of frustration at the poor and inconsistent refereeing decisions which confuse players, and evidently handicap them at international level.

Roma lost a vital game this season, conceding a crucial breakaway try with a long passing sequence which included two clearly forward passes. Referees in Italy need better training and there needs to be a more patient and educated crowd, whose explosive reaction to decisions often intimidates referees into changing decisions.

Club games attract about 1,000 people, although derbies such as our game against local rivals L'Aquila attracted many more, and the semi-finals and final of the League Championship are adrenalin-charged affairs with stands teeming with large, vociferous crowds, music blasting out from loudspeakers around the ground and every score driving fans into a frenzy of excitement.

In small towns such as Rovigo or Calvisano, the locals live for rugby and the players are either treated as heroes or vilified for poor performances. But in large cities such as Rome, they escape unnoticed.

Although media coverage has more than doubled in the past few years, it remains a pale imitation of other sports and trying to find somewhere to watch the Rugby World Cup final proved an onerous task. Every Sunday, one league game is aired live on the paying channels RaiSport and Sky Sports, and local television channels show highlights of their team's games.

National newspapers only cover Super 10 results - a miserly two-line match report - and rugby magazines do not exist here, hence players who do not even speak a word of English are compelled to buy Rugby World as the only available option. Clubs in lower divisions must rely exclusively on local newspapers and club websites for exposure.

Training is twice daily, a gym or skills session at 10.0am followed by a rugby session at 7.0pm. This means huge periods of free time in the middle of the day which can become tedious. To add to this, the shops close between 1.0pm and 4.0pm for lunch. As beautiful as Rome may be, the need to rest between training means that walking the streets is often an unwelcome option, and may be limited to a cappuccino in a nearby café.

Afternoon training would be the ideal solution but this is not possible for most clubs in the Super 10 because not all their players are full-time. At Roma we only have 12 full-time players, and the rest of the squad must juggle the demands of a full-time job with those of rugby. Consequently, fitting in something as fundamental as a gym session becomes very difficult for them. In Italy, unlike in England, there is a limit on EU players: any non-Italian is classed as a "foreigner" and there is a limit of five per team. This admirably promotes Italian players, yet clubs cannot afford to pay all their Italian players a full-time wage to take advantage of this rule.

Any team needs a squad of at least 30 full-time players to cope with the demands of a full season, which incorporates league, cup and European games. This explains why Italian teams struggle to compete in European club competitions against full-time squads and why many of Italy's best players, such as Diego Dominguez, the Bergamasco brothers and Aaron Persico, have opted to play abroad in search of a higher standard of rugby.

This is not the case with all Italian teams. There is a considerable financial advantage for clubs in the Super 10 such as Treviso, Calvisano and Viadana which boast a squad of full-time professionals with a fully professional structure. It is no coincidence that these teams have monopolised the League Championship since rugby turned professional in Italy.

The average full-time Super 10 player earns between €1,500 (£1,020) and €3,000 a month after tax, while the Italians who combine work and rugby will earn no more than €1,000 from the game.

This is actually more lucrative than it sounds when you consider the lower standard of living in Italy and that every player from abroad negotiates a flat and car into their contract, so your wage equates to your spending money, and the star players in the league, ex-internationals from the big rugby-playing nations, demand between €4,000 and €5,000 a month.

Playing in Italy should not be underestimated. There is still much to be done: coaching at grass roots level is poor but the playing infrastructure is developing. Roma are investing in a new clubhouse and playing facilities, and Viadana are growing under the guidance of their youth development director, Andrew Jeppson. The former Rugby Football Union youth development officer is creating a structure to develop players, in-cluding community programmes never before seen in Italy.

For some, playing in Italy represents the pinnacle of their careers, for others it is a stepping stone. Either way, playing in the Super 10 provides a stage on which a player can perform, and I can think of worse settings than Rome.

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