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Charismatic prop Castrogiovanni to lead Italy against Canada in rugby test

06/13/2012 01:55 EDT | Updated 08/13/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Captain Sergio Parisse may be sidelined by injury but Italy will still be led out by a rugby icon when it takes on Canada at BMO Field in Friday's test match.

Charismatic prop Martin Castrogiovanni, one of the most instantly recognizable faces in world rugby, will captain the 12th-ranked Italians against No. 13 Canada.

The six-foot-two, 262-pound Castrogiovanni is hard to miss on the field with his beard and shoulder-length hair.

The 30-year-old Castrogiovanni, who plays his club rugby for English powerhouse Leicester, is an elite scrummager who loves to run with the ball and isn't averse to hitting people. He was named player of the year in the top English league in 2006-07, the first prop and first Italian to earn the award.

"He's a great athlete ... He's great for the game," said Gareth Rees, manager of the Canadian men's program.

"I think our fans will respond to him, because they like physical contact, and the fact that he looks how he looks, everyone knows where he is," he added.

Parisse, one of the world's great No. 8s, is a close friend of the Argentine-born Castrogiovanni.

"For me, he's one of the best in the world," said Parisse.

"He has a lot of charisma. He's like a personality. Everyone who sees him recognizes him. He's like (Sebastien) Chabal in France. Everyone knows about him."

Like Castrogiovanni, Chabal is a hard-to-miss forward with caveman looks.

For Canada, Friday's game is a rare chance to play a top rugby side. In recent years, Canada has been consigned to playing second-tier teams or 'B' sides from elite test nations.

Canada's record against Italy is 2-4 with the Italians winning the last three meetings. The Canadians' last win came in November 2000, a 22-17 victory in Rovigo, Italy.

The Italians finished fifth in the Sixth Nations this year but dropped a spot in the recent IRB rankings, leapfrogged by Scotland after the Scots scored an upset win in Australia.

While they are just above the Canadians in the rankings, they have a fully professional side that has been forged in the Six Nations competition.

"We always take the field to win but I'd think we'd probably be underdogs going in, given the amount of professional players and probably the amount of preparation they've had," said Rees.

Italy opened its summer tour with a 37-22 loss in Argentina that saw acting captain Marco Bortolami dislocate his shoulder.

Parisse, who injured his leg playing for Stade Francais in a loss last month to Biarritz in France's Top 14 league, hopes to be ready for the June 23 tour finale against the U.S. in Houston.

Italy will be counting on the experience of Castrogiovanni (86 caps)and flanker Alessando Zanni (64). They total 150 of the 275 caps in Italy's starting lineup Friday.

Italy will start uncapped Alberto Benettin at fullback and Andrea Pratichetti against Canada.

Canadian-born Robert Barbieri will start in the Italian backrow for Italy. The 28-year-old from Toronto shifts from blindside flanker to No. 8 in Parisse's absence, with Zanni moving to No. 6.

Born to Italian parents, Barbieri first came to Italy's attention as a member of Canada's under-19 team on an Italian tour. That led to an invitation for him and older brother Michael, a prop Michael, to try out with an Italian club side in Parma.

Robert stayed in Italy and worked his way up to the national team. Michael went on to play for Canada.

"All the team wants to have a good game for him," Parisse said of Robert Barbieri and his return home.

"I know you guys probably want to smash him," he added with a laugh at a news conference Wednesday, looking over at Canadian players Sean Duke and Jeff Hassler.

Rugby Canada tried to keep Robert Barbieri in the fold, but he chose Italy because it played more games and was part of the high-profile Six Nations annual tournament that includes England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

"Definitely one that got away," Rees said. "He's a talented player.

"I'm very happy for him that he can come back to his own community and play. I'd have preferred it was in a Canadian jersey but I think hopefully, when I see his name on the team sheet, that Rugby Canada is a different organization and has learned from some of the mistakes that didn't keep him in a red jersey."

Canada makes six changes to the team that defeated the U.S. Eagles 28-25 last weekend in Kingston, Ont.

"There were far too many mistakes from our team," Rees said of the performance against the 17th-ranked Americans in Canada's first outing since the World Cup.

Coming into the starting lineup are hooker Mike Pletch, prop Jason Marshall, lock Jebb Sinclair, flanker Tyler Ardron and wingers Conor Trainor and Phil Mackenzie.

Sinclair has turned heads recently, loaned from England's London Irish to Sound Africa's Super 15 side the Western Stormers.

Rugby Canada says more than 10,000 tickets have been sold for the match. More than a few may be rooting for the Azzurri given the number of Canadians of Italian descent in Toronto.

"Italians are everywhere in the world," Parisse said with a laugh.

Canada wraps up its summer schedule against No. 14 Georgia in Burnaby, B.C., on June 23. The team will tour Europe in November although the schedule has yet to be finalized.

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Canada

Hubert Buydens, Prairie Wolf Pack, Saskatoon; Mike Pletch, Ontario Blues, Lucan, Ont.,, Jason Marshall, Stade Aurillacois (France), North Vancouver; Jebb Sinclair, London Irish (England) and Western Stormers (South Africa), Charters Settlement, N.B.; Tyler Hotson, London Scottish (England), Vancouver; Tyler Ardron, Ontario Blues, Lakefield, Ont.; Chauncey O'Toole, The Rock, Belleisle, N.B.; Aaron Carpenter (capt.), Plymouth Albion (England), Brantford, Ont., Sean White, unattached, Victoria; Matt Evans, Cornish Pirates (England), Duncan, B.C.; Phil Mackenzie, London Welsh (England), Oakville, Ont,; Mike Scholz, Ontario Blues, Oakville, Ont., D.T.H. van der Merwe, Glasgow Warriors (Scotland), Victoria; Conor Trainor, B.C. Bears, Vancouver; James Pritchard, Bedford Blues (England), Parkes, Australia.

Reserves

Andrew Tiedemann, Prairie Wolf Pack, St. Albert, Alta.; Tom Dolezel, Ontario Blues, London, Ont.; Jon Phelan, The Rock, Montreal; Nanyak Dala, Prairie Wolf Pack, Saskatoon; Ed Fairhurst, B.C. Bears, Vancouver; Liam Underwood, Ontario Blues, Toronto; Ciaran Hearn, The Rock, Conception Bay South, N.L.

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