Bathurst-bound FIRLA guns eye off spots in the Azzurri World Cup squad

HE'S BACK FOR FIRLA: Christian Bate was electric at fullback for the Azzurri last year. He's pushing for a World Cup spot in the Italian side when FIRLA takes on Western on Saturday. Photo: PHIL BLATCH
HE'S BACK FOR FIRLA: Christian Bate was electric at fullback for the Azzurri last year. He's pushing for a World Cup spot in the Italian side when FIRLA takes on Western on Saturday. Photo: PHIL BLATCH

Spots in the final Italy squad to compete at this year’s Rugby League World Cup will go on the line when the Federation of Italia Rugby League Australia (FIRLA) senior side takes on Western on Saturday.

For the second year running, the Azzurri’s Australian branch of players will tackle a Rams’ senior side and FIRLA president Reno Santaguida said a handful of players will be vying to make Cameron Ciraldo’s final 22-man squad.

Santaguida is also the manager of the World Cup side, and says the likes of 2011 NRL premiership winner Vic Mauro, up-and-coming Sharks backrower Jayden Walker and Belrose fullback Christian Bate are in contention for a spot in the Italian squad.

All three will be in action at Carrington Park on Saturday as FIRLA looks to win a second consecutive clash with Western after winning 34-18 last season.

“Cameron has named a 40-man squad and some of them have been included at that,” Santaguida said.

“Cameron has his eye on the 20s and senior side to see if there’s anyone out there that catches the eye.”

After last year’s performance, Bate would have to be a leading contender to fill a backline spot for the Italians.

He’s coming off a Sydney Shield Player of the Year award win at the Brad Fittler Medal, too.

The Italians are also sending under 16s, under 18s and under 20s teams to Carrington Park to compete against Western’s best juniors.

All of the players headed to Bathurst to represent FIRLA are based in Australia but boast Italian heritage and Santaguida said his goal was to open FIRLA’s door to any bush players with links to Italy as well.

The likes of James Tedesco, Paul Vaughan, Nathan Brown, Aiden Guerra, Anthony and Mark Minichello, and Terry Campese have all represented Italy based on their Italian heritage.

“Our aim is to encourage kids with Italian heritage to recognise there’s other opportunity other than playing for Australia,” he said.

“We’ve got our own organisation in Australia that feeds into the Italian side eventually, and if they’re good enough they’ll make it.”

Former Sharks centre Paul Franze will coach the FIRLA under 16s while former Western Suburbs Magpies player Leo Epifania looks after the first grade side.

Santaguida coaches the FIRLA under 18s, a side that will take on reigning country champions Western in its clash.

The Italian mentor concedes his side has a big challenge ahead of it, with the majority of the boys in the squad still 17.

“But they’ve come together really well and they’ve been asking a lot of questions, they’re looking forward to the day,” he added.

“For a lot of them, just playing on an oval the Penrith Panthers played on this year will be a massive thrill.

“In each grade, we’ll be handy.”