Treviso and Parma are popular tourist destinations but Benetton and Zebre Parma have turned the breath-taking landscapes of northern Italy into a treacherous hunting ground for travelling teams in the BKT United Rugby Championship.
South Africa’s focus shifts to Italy in round four as the Hollywoodbets Sharks and DHL Stormers continue the search for their first tour wins of the season, but hiding in the beauty of these historic Italian cities are two teams waiting to pounce.
Treviso’s Benetton narrowly missed out on the BKT URC playoffs last season and have responded by bolstering their squad with 2022/23 BKT URC title-winner Malakai Fekitoa.
The ex-All Blacks centre, who represented Tonga at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, has made an immediate impact after moving from Munster, scoring his first try for Benetton in the catfight against the Emirates Lions.
The DHL Stormers have identified Fekitoa as a major threat going into Saturday’s clash.
“He comes with a wealth of experience and won a BKT URC. He’s also won a few Rugby Championships,” said DHL Stormers skills coach Labeeb Levy.
“What you find with experienced players like that, it’s not only them that is the threat, but it’s how they allow the people around them to play. You can see that people are excited to play alongside him. He was an All Black and is an international. He will be a danger man.”
Coached by former Italian centurion Marco Bortolami, Benetton are one of only three unbeaten teams going into round 4, having taken a one-point win away from Cardiff, before holding Munster to a draw and then clawing the Emirates Lions.
When playing at home, Benetton have proved to be a major threat, winning six games out of nine last season, scalping the likes of Glasgow Warriors, Edinburgh and Ulster along the way.
The DHL Stormers deferred to no-one in the inaugural BKT URC, en route to clinching the title, but they famously made their competition bow with a 22-18 reverse against Benetton in Treviso.
“We’re under no illusions of the challenge facing us this week,” said DHL Stormers coach John Dobson. “Benetton are as hard a team to beat away from home as any other in this league and we’ll have to play very well to win.”
The Vodacom Bulls will attest to this, suffering a 35-8 defeat in the Rainbow Cup final at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo in 2021.
Similarly, Jake White’s side will vouch for the hazards of taking on Zebre in Parma, having had to fight for a 54-29 win that certainly was not as comfortable as the scoreline suggests. Only seven points separated the two teams going into the final 15 minutes.
Now bottom of the table and still looking to open their points account, the Hollywoodbets Sharks take on the side that has had to settle for the BKT URC’s wooden spoon over the past two seasons.
The defeat to the Vodacom Bulls was Zebre Parma’s 22nd straight loss in the BKT URC, but there is newfound optimism over how they have started the season.
They led both Ulster and Ospreys at half time, before going down in high-scoring yet narrow defeats, picking up four bonus points along the way.
Scoring points has not been an issue for the Italians. Only the Vodacom Bulls (137) have put more points on the board in the opening three rounds than Zebre’s 96, which is tied by the DHL Stormers.
Zebre Parma’s ability to stampede their opponents is something that Vodacom Bulls coach White has warned his fellow South Africans about.
“I think people come here and underestimate Zebre at their peril,” White said, following his side’s win in Parma.
“When they attack, they ask good questions of your defence, and you’ve got to make good reads.”
The Hollywoddbets Sharks will know full well the threat of Zebre Parma’s attack. The last time these two sides met in September, 2022, saw the Sharks having to hold on for a narrow win in a 10-try festival, with flyhalf Boeta Chamberlain’s penalty and conversion the difference in a 42-37 victory.
So while the two South African outfits will bask in the magnificent architecture around the two cities, they will do so knowing that inside awaits a massive challenge.