The Welsh-Italian Connection

The Welsh-Italian Connection

Since the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there has been a strong and constant connection between the people of Wales and Italy.

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At that time, the start of Italian immigration to Wales saw a number of Europeans settle in the south of the country with many establishing cafes, ice cream parlours, and fish and chip shops.

And it was not long before several Welsh-Italian families began to make their name in the world of sport – and rugby in particular – in Wales.

Boxers Joe Calzaghe and Enzo Maccarinelli are two Welshmen with Italian heritage who rose to the top of their sport. Calzaghe, in particular, dominated in the ring and is the longest reigning super-middleweight world champion in boxing history. He held the WBO title for over 10 years.

In rugby, there have also been several Welsh players with Italian heritage who have either pulled on the Three Feathers and represented the men in red or starred playing for Wales’ clubs or regions.

Perhaps the most famous is 2005 Six Nations Grand Slam-winning lock Robert Sidoli.

As the son of Italian immigrant Primo Sidoli, Robert and his brother Peter were born in Merthyr Tydfil and had fantastic careers in Welsh rugby.

Robert Sidoli won 42 caps for Wales scoring two tries. His last Test came against England at Twickenham in 2007, but the 2005 Grand Slam was his undoubted highlight.

It could all have been very different for him though as he was approached to play for Italy before he committed to the red shirt.

The Welsh-Italian Connection

Robert Sidoli carries during Wales' Grand Slam-winning match against Ireland in 2005.

“It was a hell of a compliment to us,” Robert Sidoli said of his Italian admirers. “It was around the time Italy were on a worldwide recruitment drive and we were told a couple of Italian clubs were very interested in signing us. We had to go away and think about it. We are, after all, half Italian.

“But we decided to stick with Wales because we were born and bred here.”

Robert Sidoli also had successful spells with Merthyr, Pontypridd, Celtic Warriors, Cardiff Blues, Bristol, and the Dragons.

His brother Peter played for Wales at Under-21 level. He was called up by Wales head coach Mike Ruddock for a game against the Barbarians in 2004, but didn’t win a cap.

Continuing his links with his farmer’s homeland, Peter Sidoli joined Italian side Calvisano in 2008 and nationalised to play for Italy after a long stint with the Dragons. He never represented the Azzurri.

Primo Sidoli moved to Wales from Bardi – an Italian town from which many Welsh Italians emigrated. His family ended up running the famous Sidoli’s Ice Cream business.

The Welsh-Italian Connection

Llanelli's Mark Perego greets Prince Charles before a match against South Africa in 1994.

Former Llanelli flanker Mark Perego, who won nine caps for Wales between 1990 and 1994, is another Welshman with Italian heritage.

Perego made his Test debut against Scotland in March 1990 and was one of the hardest men to ever pull on a red shirt. Ultra-fit, he used to train by running through mountain rivers with his top off while carrying an axe! The axe would be used for chopping wood at the end of the run!

Perego’s nickname was ‘Oddball’ which tells you pretty much everything you need to know! He is the uncle of Cardiff Blues hooker Kirby Myhill.

Tonia Antoniazzi’s colourful career as a Welsh-Italian has taken her from the rugby pitch to the House of Commons.

As the Labour MP for Gower, Antoniazzi’s career is now in politics, but she participated in the first Women’s World Cup sanctioned by the former International Rugby Board back in 1998.

Antoniazzi is one of the most famous Welsh-Italian names around. Tonia won nine caps and played for Wales for three years. Her last cap as a tighthead prop came in 1999 and the fact her Twitter profile picture is of her wearing a Welsh rugby shirt live on television tells you everything you need to know about which team she supports!

Her relative Julian Antoniazzi, from the Graig School in Llanelli, played for Welsh Schools seven times in 1985. Among those games was a famous win over New Zealand.

The Welsh-Italian Connection

Tonia Antoniazzi won nine Wales caps before embarking on a successful political career.

The list of Welsh-Italians in rugby continues.

Kieron Assiratti from the Rhondda made a name for himself at Wales U20 level, and last year signed his first senior deal with Cardiff Blues.

Adrian Cambriani played for Swansea and then went to rugby league. There are two Cambrianis – Ben and Sam – at the Ospreys right now. Ben was picked for Wales Under-18 and Wales Sevens, where his dynamism was there for all to see.

Dominic and Frank Setaro both played at centre for Wales Youth in 1983 and 1984 respectively and then played for Llanelli.

There is also the Chiffi family in Tenby, and two of those gained caps for Welsh Schools and Wales Youth.

The Welsh-Italian Connection

Cardiff Blues' Kieron Assiratti and Ospreys' Ben Cambriani have made a strong impression at an early stage of their career.

One player whose name hasn’t yet been mentioned is young Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney, the Pembrokeshire boy who could line up against Wales this weekend in Llanelli. Welsh speaker Varney’s great-grandfather was an Italian POW who remained in West Wales following the end of the Second World War (much more on that story here in this BBC interview with his family – including Varney’s father, ex-Neath flanker Adrian).

Clearly, the ties between the two countries remain strong to this day. Many of the aforementioned may even have a sense of divided loyalty when Wales host Italy at Parc y Scarlets in Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup clash.

This weekend’s game will be the 29th between the two countries. Of the 28 so far, 25 have been won by Wales with two Italian wins and a draw.

For further reading on the history of the Italians in Wales, click here.