The Italy players who are care workers when not at Rugby League World Cup | Rugby League World Cup 2021

If Italy beat Fiji on Saturday, there will be a group of autistic children in Sydney most upset. Not that many of them will be following the match – they will just be without their friend Jake for another week, at least.

When he’s not representing his country in a World Cup match 10,500 miles away, Italy forward Jake Colovatti splits his days between training with NRL club Parramatta Eels and helping young people. A teacher’s aid at Giants Steps, a school for autistic children and young adults in Gladesville in New South Wales, Colovatti is developing two very different career paths at the same time. And, since last Sunday, he can add international rugby league player to his CV as well.

Having first pulled on an Italy shirt in their pre-tournament friendly with Lebanon in September, Colovatti was thrilled to make his Test debut when he came off the bench in the first half of Italy’s commanding 28-4 win over Scotland. Another victory over Fiji on the same pitch on Saturday will secure Italy a shock place in the quarter-finals for the first time in their 72-year history.

“The kids will wonder where I am,” says the 22-year-old. “Some of the kids know I play at the Eels and some you can have a conversation with. When I get back I will be able to chat with a couple about it. But most of the ones I’m working with at the moment wouldn’t understand. They use these ‘talkers’ where they press on our photos and it says our names. I think a fair lot of them are requesting me: ‘Jack, Jack, Jack’!”

Jack Colovatti celebrates after Italy’s win over Scotland.
Jack Colovatti celebrates after Italy’s win over Scotland. Photograph: Ashley Allen/Getty Images

The job was arranged by the Eels, who are a charity partner of Giant Steps, which is financed by fundraisers. As part of the agreement between the NRL and the players’ union, all Under-20 players have to be studying, working or learning a new profession alongside their rugby league. Working with children facing such life challenges has been invigorating for Colovatti, who is now considering a secondary career in care.

“I got into it off the back of footy as soon as I moved to Sydney. It’s the best thing I’ve done. At first I wasn’t sure, but I’m warming to it. It’s definitely something I’m enjoying. I love helping the kids. It’s made such a better person, made me grow and taught me to appreciate what I have. These people are so amazing, so genuine. They don’t change for no one. It definitely affects your outlook on life and makes you appreciate the little things. We’re lucky to be neurotypical in the sense that we can go out here and there, and chat with our friends. Some people can’t do that. It puts things in perspective: your problems aren’t as big as you think they are.”

Colovatti, whose family are from Trieste on the Slovenian border, is a recent addition to Leo Epifania’s squad. “The call-up was pretty late notice so I was thankful that Giant Steps were happy for me to go. Obviously it’s an awesome opportunity for me and I would not miss it for anything. They understood that. I’m playing for my late grandfather and making my family proud. He’s a big part of my life. He was very stubborn – it was his way or the highway! He was the best. That’s why we loved him. It’s all for him. I’m sure he’s watching from up above.”

Colovatti is not the only Italy player working in the care industry. Radean Robinson, the slender Central Queensland Capras half-back who toyed with Scotland last Sunday, has been a support worker with disabled adults at Big Dog in Rockhampton for the past two years. “They took me on board and really balanced me out with my work and footy life. I get a group of people with disabilities and take them out and about, learning life skills. I love it. Just helping people really satisfies me. I think I can do it as a career or maybe help a community on a wider scale.”

Robinson was an even later call-up to the squad, only getting the nod when Cooper Johns withdrew. The 24-year-old, whose maternal grandfather hails from Treviso, jumped at the chance. “It’s been incredible,” he says. “I only knew a week before we flew over: I got the call and it all manifested out. My work were pretty understanding.”

Radean Robinson in action against Scotland.
Radean Robinson in action against Scotland. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images for RLWC

Two thirds of the Italy squad are semi-professionals and their day jobs reflect a fairly typical cross section of society: Richard Lepori owns a gym in Manchester; Rinaldo Palumbo is a barber in London; Simone Boscolo is studying for a Master’s degree in Provence.

At a tournament where a third of the players are part-time, there are stories of sacrifice everywhere you look. Scotland captain Dale Ferguson – a self-employed quarry digger – is taking unpaid leave for a month; Ireland prop Michael Ward quit his job as a maths teacher so he could dedicate his autumn term to representing his country; Wales loose forward Joe Burke had to rush from the team’s base in Preston to South Wales a few days ago to complete an accreditation course for his plumbing business. Other players have saved up a year’s worth of holiday for this experience of a lifetime. An unexpected victory over Fiji will extend that trip for Colovatti, Robinson and Italy for another wonderful week.

What they said

“You can watch world class rugby league without leaving the sofa, but there are tickets for most games at £15 or £25 – that’s a fraction of any World Cup in other sports,” said revenue director of the tournament Mick Horgan on Thursday in response to concerns about attendances at some early games. “No game so far has run out of the lowest category [cheapest] tickets. We sold more tickets on Saturday night than at any time in the last two years. There’s been a big upsurge in sales for the Emirates – over 35,000 now – and Old Trafford. Revenue for the final is already half a million pounds more than any other rugby league match in the northern hemisphere, ever.”

Buzz about: Toluta’u Koula and Isaiya Katoa, Tonga

Standouts for Tonga in their last-gasp win over Papua New Guinea on Tuesday night were 20-year-old Manly full back Toluta’u Koula, who only made his NRL breakthrough this year, and 18-year-old try-scoring half back Isaiya Katoa, who has left Penrith without making his NRL debut. Indicative of Tonga’s lack of options in the pivot positions, both relative novices were outstanding. Koula, born in Sydney to two Tongan Olympic sprinters, played on the wing last week against France. The exciting Katoa has been snapped up by the Dolphins.

World Cup memory

Seeing Cook Islands back in action at Leigh Sports Village on Thursday night for the first time since the 2013 World Cup will have brought back uncomfortable memories for Sam Mataora. The former Canberra Raider and Newcastle Knight was the poor soul who, after tumbling head over heels while being tackled by two Tongan’s at the ground nine years ago, got up and played the ball. Unfortunately he was facing his own tryline by this point. Penalty to Tonga and YouTube immortality.

Off the record

Scotland coach Nathan Graham despaired at his side’s surrender to Italy and knows a repeat display against Australia could be embarrassing. “It should be easy for us. We’re playing the world champions. If you can’t get up for the game you don’t deserve to be here. We’ve got to come up with a performance that’s deserving of wearing a Scotland shirt.”

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