Bortolami brings the shock of the new to fire hopes of Kingsholm renaissance

Chris Hewett meets Gloucester's 'Italian job', the lock whose flair could just make him the signing of the close season
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The Independent Online

It used to be an article of faith that Gloucester forwards were born within the sound of the city's cathedral bells and that they served a brutal apprenticeship at the bottom of a thousand rucks in the Forest of Dean, where impenetrable mists ensured the referee could not see who was kicking whom. Marco Bortolami, on the other hand, was born within walking distance of the Cappella Scrovegni in Padova, where the only scrums were those surrounding the world-renowned frescos by Giotto.

To the denizens of the Kingsholm Shed, who will witness his Premiership debut this afternoon against Bath, he might have arrived from outer space. After all, their most striking contribution to art was hanging an effigy of Francois Pienaar from the roof above their beloved strip of terracing.

For all the unfamiliarity, it should not take the captain of Italy more than a half of rugby to get the Shedheads on his side. Dean Ryan, who signed Bortolami from the fair-to-middling French club Narbonne after tracking him for the best part of a year, is not given to dispensing praise on a lavish scale, as the likes of Ryan Lamb and Anthony Allen have discovered of late, but on this particular subject, there is no holding him. In fact, it is difficult to recall the "Big Bad Wolf" being this excited about anyone or anything.

"I can't speak highly enough of Marco," the director of rugby said this week. "He is absolutely top drawer, one of the few players I know who can come into a new environment and perform with complete authority straight away. He has great leadership skill, he's calm under pressure, he has an aura about him.

"We are also talking about a remarkable athlete waiting to happen. It's generally accepted that many of the training regimes in French rugby are nowhere near the level of the ones we have here. Over the summer, we've put five kilos on him. Just watch him develop during the next 12 months."

Ryan has an unerring eye for a decent tight forward, as befits a Gloucester coach, and once he spotted the 26-year-old lock whipping up a storm for a hastily compiled World XV a little over a year ago, he identified him as a high-priority target. "Hardened New Zealanders were saying to me: 'Who the hell is this guy?'" he recalled. "Yes, we went after him very deliberately and got our feet under the table early. There was competition, not least from other clubs in France, but we were ahead of the game. I think he'll be tremendous for us."

Bortolami has been tremendous for a while now. He played first-class rugby for Padova at 18, made his Test debut at 20 and was appointed national captain at 22. In his country's less impressive Six Nations Championship campaigns, he has been something of a one-man band, keeping the Azzurri afloat with some epic displays at the line-out. Now that things are looking up in all directions - his two-year deal at Kingsholm should coincide with a significant improvement in Italy's performance at international level - it could be that we are about to see world-class potential realised before our very eyes.

"This is the most important season of my career - a year before the World Cup, a year in which I feel ready to play at my best," Bortolami said after a lunchtime forwards' session geared to the specific task of neutralising the vigorous Bath pack in today's derby.

"I wanted to move to the Premiership because it is the strongest league - the best 10 teams can compete with the best three in France - but it was essential that I chose the right club. Gloucester made it clear that they wanted me and that they were serious about their project for the next two years. My expectations have been fulfilled. The competitive mentality, the quality of training, the professionalism... I was looking for these things, and I've found them."

Rugby union is gaining popularity in Italy, but remains small beer compared with football. When Bortolami started playing, it was not so much small as microscopic. "My father, Pasquale, played for Padova as a prop or a second row - it didn't seem to matter which," he recalled with a smile. "That was in the 1970s, mostly. He stayed close to the club, so it was natural for me to follow him there.

"I began when I was 10 and spent 14 years with them, before moving to Narbonne. I love the club greatly. Maybe I will go back there for my last three or four years. If it is possible, I would like to return."

All of which raised the thorny issue of Italian rugby and its development. Can it really be best served by the leading players pushing off to England or France, leaving the Trevisos and Calvisanos and the myriad Parmas to mooch around the dustier corners of the Heineken and European Challenge Cup tournaments with players barely recognisable to their own kith and kin? A sigh suggested it was indeed an awkward subject.

"The club game is quite professional at home now, but we have few players of the top quality and it is taking a long time to address that problem," admitted Bortolami, an analytical sort who is midway through a mechanical engineering degree at his home town university and plans to continue studying during his stay in England.

"Treviso and Calvisano are our strongest teams, but they can lose by 60 points on a bad day against an English or French club. At this stage, and in the short term, I think it is of more benefit to the national team that the leading players go abroad and improve themselves.

"This may not be the solution for our rugby as a whole, but the most important thing is to build ourselves up as an international side. When I look at how Argentina have become stronger, I see us on a similar track. Their top players have been in England and France for five years or more. If we take the same trail, we will soon be on the threshold of something at Test level."

Italy will discover where they stand soon enough. Bortolami leaves Gloucester next month for World Cup qualifying games against Portugal and Russia, and again in November for important meetings with the Wallabies, the Pumas and Canada. All being well, it will be the start of his team's fine-tuning for the 2007 World Cup in France, where he trusts he and his colleagues will be more fairly treated than in Australia three years ago.

"All we ask is that we have the same chance as the other teams," he said, his sunny mood darkening at the memory of a fixture list that compelled Italy to play a do-or-die pool match against Wales less than 96 hours after a bone-jarring encounter with the Canadians. It was one of the more scandalous examples of the World Cup's naked bias towards the major nations. The big guns had a month to play four group games. Italy played theirs in a fortnight.

Not that Bortolami is tying himself in knots over the forthcoming global bun fight just yet. He has a reputation to forge and respect to earn at Kingsholm, which is not, and never has been, pushover territory.

His second-row relationship with an indignant Alex Brown, summarily blown out of the England squad after winning a first cap in Sydney at the start of the summer, will take time to build.

Bortolami's relationship with the paying public will be more important still. The locals may have grown used to foreign imports - Terry Fanolua, Philippe Saint-André and Olivier Azam all succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds - but hell hath no fury like a Gloucester crowd catching a whiff of anything less than 100 per cent commitment.

According to Ryan, connecting with the faithful will be the least of Bortolami's problems. And the player himself?

"I saw one game at Kingsholm last season and thought the crowd was wonderful," Bortolami said, stopping just short of suggesting it was they who persuaded him to join the club. "Maybe if we beat Bath in this game, it will be the perfect start for me. I understand the deep feeling that surrounds these matches."

He understands a lot of things, Signor Bortolami. Enough to make him an immediate candidate for the transfer capture of the season.