GIVEN the extent to which the Coronavirus disease has gripped the northern part of Italy in recent weeks, Ian Nagle has no hesitation in saying that rugby is at the back of people’s minds at the moment.
The Buttevant man’s debut campaign at the Parma-based Zebre has been halted due to the global outbreak of COVID-19 with no date currently in sight for a resumption in competitive action. While this level of uncertainty is a source of frustration for many, Nagle recognises there is a bigger picture at play.
“I think the players have really put rugby into perspective and that perspective is that it’s of absolutely no significance when compared to general health.
“It’s getting to a point now where salaries are going to be quite heavily affected. That obviously adds a whole variety of stresses for guys who have mortgages and young families,” Nagle said, speaking from his family home.
“We’ve been very lucky in that the president of Zebre rugby club is really doing everything he can to keep the players’ salaries going as best as he can. The number one thing on everyone’s mind is just keeping safe. Trying to get through this and then assessing the damage once we get through the other side.”
Despite returning from the region several weeks back, Nagle is nothing but positive when he reflects on his time in Italy thus far.
There was already a strong Irish presence at the club in the form of head coach and fellow Cork man Michael Bradley, who recruited both Nagle and Dubliner Mick Kearney from Leinster last summer.
His former Munster team-mate Ian Keatley has also joined forces with Ian McKinley at rival outfit Benetton and Nagle feels more Irish players should consider a move to the southern European nation.
“I’d say a lot of Irish players maybe haven’t considered Italian teams as much in the past. I would hope that trend might change because I think Italians and Italy as a culture is actually in some ways very similar to Irish culture.
“Brads has obviously brought myself and Mick on. Any players we have spoken to, who are maybe considering Italian clubs, we would vouch for it as a great experience and a club with hopefully a better future.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if more players were to join in the future or at least consider it.”
March 6 just past was a major date in the calendar for Nagle as it represented the 10th anniversary of his debut in the professional game - a 10-minute cameo for Munster in a Celtic League clash against Dragons.
He went on to amass 31 caps at his native province before taking a break from full-time rugby to attend Cambridge University.
He subsequently marked his comeback with a brief spell at London Irish, which preceded stints at Leinster, Ulster (loan) and now Zebre.
Though opportunities were limited at Munster, Mike Sherry’s recent appearance on the Duncan & Duncan podcast for The Irish Examiner hit home how fortunate he is to still be plying his trade in a ferociously competitive field.
“Mike was just talking about his injuries and how his career ended. The periods of frustration he had over a number of years where his injuries weren’t getting right.
“That partly resonates with me because before I took the break I went through a similar experience myself, where I couldn’t get right with injuries.
“To keep playing 10 years on is great. Mike actually sent me a photo. It was 13 years to the day, the anniversary of the Ireland U19s. Of that team, I think it’s myself and Tommy Seymour who are still playing.
“It’s mad to think out of a squad of 26 guys or whatever that there’s only two guys still playing. It just shows how much luck is involved to get to this point. I’m very grateful.”
With this in mind, the Glenstal Abbey alum is in no mood to rest on his laurels and has his sights set on turning around the fortunes of Zebre. Nagle’s contract extends beyond the present season and admits he’d like to get back to Parma as soon as humanly possible.
The 2019/20 campaign has been something of a struggle for Bradley’s troops as they currently sit second from bottom in Conference A of the PRO14.
Yet there was green shoots in their European Challenge Cup campaign, where they earned wins over Brive and Stade Francais as well as a credible draw with Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears.
With 15 players in Italy’s squad for the Six Nations Championship, Zebre were considerably stretched for several games and Bradley had to give youth its fling as a consequence.
Nagle is adamant this will make the Parma men a more formidable proposition from next season onwards.
“The current situation in Zebre really is that we have a core group of maybe 25 guys who have quite a lot of experience. When we get that group together, generally we’re very competitive. We’re either winning games or we’re within a score.
“Once we go below or outside of that core group, we get guys who maybe haven’t been exposed to PRO14 rugby yet or even professional rugby to some extent.
“Hopefully this year will stand them in good stead and next year when the guys are away on international blocks we can remain competitive during certain periods,” Nagle added.