Anthony Minichiello: Going back to his roots for World Cup glory
There is much for Anthony Minichiello to reflect upon in his remarkable career. And he smiles as he casts his mind back to 1999 and the first time he harboured dreams of being a world-beater with Italy.
It was in France where the 19-year-old, then plotting a path to stardom with the Sydney Roosters, was trying to help the fledgling rugby league-playing nation qualify for the 2000 World Cup tournament. “Of course I remember. I was young, but it was a great tour and we had great fun out there,” recalls Minichiello.
“Carlo [Napolitano], now the coach, was playing then too, a front-rower back then. We lost the first game to Lebanon, beat Morocco but didn’t make it. It was disappointing, but for me as a teenager coming through it was a great experience.”
Having been born and brought up in Australia, Italy is the land of his fathers and Minichiello never forgot his roots even after he played for the Kangaroos a decade ago. He donned the Azzurri blue again in 2011 to lead another qualification campaign and this time a dramatic 19-19 draw with Lebanon – secured by a 78th minute Ryan Ghietti drop goal – sealed top spot on points difference and a place in the 2013 edition.
“A lot of the guys have been on this track for 12-13 years now to get Italy here for the first time,” he adds. “When we qualified it was a big moment, special for those who worked so hard in the past and now. After 1999, to be honest I never imagined I’d be here again and this time actually qualifying for the World Cup.
“I played first-grade rugby the year after that tournament and everything changed. But, at the back end of my career, Carlo asked me to come back and captain the team. I am proud of my heritage, always have been, and was keen to jump on board and make history.”
Fresh from a shock 15-14 warm-up win over hosts England, it will be a proud moment for the 33-year-old when he leads them out against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, and with younger brother Mark – who plays for Gold Coast Titans – also in the ranks too. Their father, Mick, was born in Avellino, just outside Naples, and left for Australia when he was 13. “He’s thrilled that me and Mark are both playing for Italy,” says the man they call ‘Mini’.
“Dad grew up in Melbourne and moved to Sydney when he met my mum (Theresa). Both my parents were hard workers and didn’t play too much sport. But when we were growing up, whatever we wanted to play they would take us. It was a great childhood.
“Obviously football has always been the biggest sport for Italians and with our roots in Naples, I followed Napoli. We had [Diego] Maradona, and they were down a bit after that, but now they are back. My wife even asked me, ‘why didn’t you play football?’ But where we grew up in Australia it was all rugby league, at school, parks around us, so it was the only option.”
A fan of the Canberra Raiders and Laurie Daley, Minichiello took up the playing option with great desire and success after first impressing at gymnastics as a child. Spotted by the Australian legend Arthur Beetson, he joined the Roosters roster and rose to become one of the most revered players in the National Rugby League (NRL), enjoying Grand Final success last month – his second Premiership in 11 years – when Sydney overcame the Manley Sea Eagles 26-18.
It was a title triumph that seemed unlikely given various setbacks and struggles. In 2006, a year after winning the prestigious Golden Boot as the world’s best player, he suffered with a chronic back problem. Doctors advised him to quit in 2008 after a subsequent neck injury, and despite a courageous comeback, concerns about the full-back’s fitness prompted Sydney to hand him one-year contracts. Yet his commitment and quality never wavered and captaining the Roosters to glory has set up the chance of a perfect year.
“It has been amazing so far,” he admits. “Winning the NRL Premiership is what you dream of, it’s what we play the game for and I was lucky enough to achieve that. When I won the first one in 2002, I was a bit young and probably took it for granted, didn’t really soak it up as much. Now I realise you have to savour these moments. It was special to win the Premiership as captain, unforgettable really after everything that has happened.
"It has been difficult for me with the injuries. But even then, during those hard times, I never thought I was finished. I always believed I could come back and play at the top level, and never once thought I’d retire, no. I’m a fighter. Now I’m here and to play at this World Cup and help Italy do well by topping our group and getting to the quarter finals at least, that would be perfect.
“We’ve had a really good preparation, and to end up beating England was massive for our squad in terms of belief. We’ve definitely got some confidence from what we produced against them to try to top our group. It’s very important for us to show something here, to show pride and perform to help rugby league grow in Italy.”
And Minichiello is not ready to bow out just yet either. Despite interest from English Super League sides Wigan and Salford and, with no desire to join another NRL side, he is still keen to sign another one-year extension with the Roosters. “It is just about finalising the details,” he says as the team look to reach agreement with the NRL over the salary cap for next season.
And Minichiello will relish the chance to line up alongside Sonny Bill Williams again. The All Blacks and boxing hero made a sensational return to league with the Roosters and will be part of New Zealand’s World Cup squad. “Sonny Bill’s a great player, no doubt,” enthuses Minichiello. “He’s professional, dedicated and added a lot to the team. We are lucky enough to have him again next year and hopefully we can still improve and get better as a team.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have another crack at the title again and I want to be part of that. I don’t know how long I’ll go on, but I’m still loving it, still enjoying training every day, and while my body is like that and able to cope then I’ll keep going for as long as I can. Why not?”
Fatherhood may well change his priorities, with wife Terry Biviano expecting their first child in December. “It’s a massive year, one of the best of my life,” he admits. One that could get even better over the coming weeks.
THE MINI MAN'S BIG CAREER
Born: May 24, 1980, Liverpool, New South Wales
Club career: Sydney Roosters 2000-current
State of Origin: New South Wales 2003-11 (11 games)
International career: Italy 1999/2011-current (4 Tests, 12 points); Australia 2003-05 (19 Tests, 44 points)
Honours: NRL Premiership: 2002, 2013 (with Sydney Roosters)
Runners-up: 2000, 2003, 2004, 2010
World Club Champions: 2003
Golden Boot: 2005
Nicknames: Mini, The Count
Heroes: Laurie Daley, Andrew Johns
Best players played with: Johns, Darren Lockyer and Brad Fittler. Legends of the game that always thought two plays ahead.
Favourite movie: The Godfather.
Did you know? Minichiello took part in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race in 2011 alongside former Australian rugby union stars Phil Waugh and Phil Kearns.