New Zealander Tyson Keats admits his first six months at RaboDriect PRO12 side Aironi have been spent overcoming one challenge after another but Italian life, and the climate, suits the 30-year-old scrum-half right down to the ground.
As well as having to get to grips with a new language, Keats is at the blunt end of an Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) regulation which only allows one foreign player to occupy a half-back position in domestic games.
But he’s met every challenge head-on and when champions Munster rolled into town last weekend, Keats and his Aironi familiars sprung a PRO12 trap to win 21-17 at the Stadio Zaffanella.
The win delighted Aironi’s fans and their passion for the sport caught Keats’ eye – he’s set on giving the local supporters something more to sing about before the season is done.
“I believe we can win every game and hopefully in the rest of the season we’ll get more than a few scalps,” said Keats, who has played Super Rugby for the Canterbury Crusaders and the Wellington Hurricanes.
“The Ospreys game at the end of the season would be a good one to win as our backs coach Gruff Rees joined them about four weeks ago so it would be nice to put one on them.
“That being a home game and the last one of the season, if we win we can carry on the celebrations for a couple of weeks.
“It was a great time to beat the reigning champions last weekend and that victory was built on defence.
“We only missed four tackles overall which is pretty much unheard of in professional club rugby.
“Our attack was pretty good too, we used the ball and managed to find a few holes in their defensive patterns.
“We had a good platform from the scrum which is always good for me. The forwards in front of me made things easy so I managed to find a bit more space around the rucks than usual.
“For our second try I got through two defenders and off-loaded and two passes later Gabriel (Pizzarro) went in for a try.
“We have paid more attention to detail recently and with the Six Nations on, the boys have come together really well.
“You can look at that result and say our top players are away, and that gives opportunities to those guys who are normally on the bench and their energy for the shirt has helped us.”
With the FIR intent on promoting home-grown talent, Keats can only play in his preferred position for Aironi if head coach Rowland Phillips selects an Italian qualified player at fly-half.
Luciano Orquera’s hamstring injury in January handed the fly-half role to South-African Naas Olivier and consequently left Keats having to bide his time on the bench which he admits makes him restless.
“I signed this contract before I knew the Italian Federation had brought in a rule that the nine and ten on the pitch can’t both be foreign,” said Keats
“It’s been very frustrating because Luciano Orquera has been injured for the last six weeks and when that happens I’m just sat on the bench so it was nice to get a game against Munster.
“He’s been getting his kicks recently so that should stand us in good stead for future selections.
“I’m definitely enjoying my rugby out here though. It’s 23 degrees outside at the moment, it’s rained six times in the six months and on most days there’s not a cloud in the sky.
“The food is amazing as well. I’ve got a tooth for Cortino meat and I have pasta or pizza every day. It’s not great for a scrum-half but I just have to run it off.
“As far as my Italian’s concerned, it’s getting there, ‘non c’e male’ as they say – it’s not bad!”