It was one of the most eventful periods in the history of Welsh rugby and Rob Sidoli was there every step and jump of the way. You had the departure of Graham Henry, the Steve Hansen-Scott Johnson era, the 2003 World Cup turning point, the first Grand Slam in 27 years, Ruddockgate and the move to regional rugby.
Second row Sidoli experienced it all during a 42-cap career that took in spells at Pontypridd, Celtic Warriors, Cardiff Blues and the Dragons. But he could have missed the whole shooting match had he taken up an offer to throw his lot in with Italian rugby when he was just 21.
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His full christian name of Roberto tells of his roots, with his father Primo having come over from Bardi in the north of Italy, going on to own the Busy Bee fish and chip shop in Merthyr, with other family members running the famous Sidoli’s ice cream business.
“Where they are from, the culture is very much based around eating and socialising, so when they came over, they turned their hand to things they understood,” explains Rob. “The Sidolis in Ebbw Vale went after the ice cream route, some of my cousins went after the coffee route and others went after the cafe business, the fish and chips.”
Primo met and married a girl from Cardiff, Barbara, and along came two sons, Rob and Peter, both of whom were to make their mark in rugby. While the Italian side of the family was football-focused, there were strong rugby connections on their mother’s side, with cousins Tim and Simon Crothers having played for Cardiff RFC, Tim captaining the club against the All Blacks in 1989. Born and bred in Merthyr, Rob took up the sport at Bishop Hedley School and progressed through the ranks at his home-town club before joining Pontypridd in 1999, with his natural strengths clear from the outset.
“I was always tall and I was very much the athlete, able to jump and catch. I was good at that. I was quite co-ordinated for my height which was a bonus. Throw the highest and I would be fine. The catching and passing was something I had to learn. I couldn’t pass off my left hand. I was taught that by Paul John at Ponty.”
Steadily developing his all-round game, he became an established figure in the Sardis side by the 2000-01 season and international honours beckoned – yet not with Wales initially.
“The new coach of Italy, Brad Johnson, had a strategy of scouring the leagues of the world to see who was Italian qualified to try and strengthen the national squad. They were on a worldwide recruitment drive. Obviously being a Sidoli playing in Wales, my name came up, along with my brother’s because he was at Ebbw Vale.
“We were approached and asked if we would be interested in an opportunity to play for Italy. To do that, we would be required to go and play for an Italian team. So they flew us out to Treviso and we met all the coaches and saw the set-up out there. It was a hell of a compliment, but, as tempting as it was, I was just really happy at Ponty.
“I was intrigued to go out there and explore my options. If it had been the season before when I was trying to cut my teeth and earn my stripes, I might have been more tempted. But because I had established myself and was starting to play regularly for Ponty I was of the mindset to stay local. I was in Ponty, doing well, I was in Cardiff university studying computing, it just wasn’t the right time to be going out to Italy.
“I opened the door, I got the contacts and I knew if things didn’t work out at home, I could pick up the phone a year or so later and say is the opportunity still there. But, as it happened, I went on to Wales A and then Wales and that opportunity just kind of shut its own door.”
Having impressed for Mike Ruddock’s A-team, Sidoli was selected to go on the senior tour of Japan in 2001, only for fate to take a hand: “The phonecall came when I was in the waiting room to have surgery on my shoulder. I always remember that call. It was hugely disappoiting.”
But he was in the eye of the coaches and the following summer he was to make his Wales debut out in South Africa, coming on as a replacement in both Tests against the Springboks.
“That was a phenomenal experience. To get capped for the first time is special, but it was particularly special that day because it was such an intimidating place to be, Bloemfontein. James Dalton, the hooker, was playing for them. I had a bit of a mix-up with him. We had an altercation on the pitch. It was great!
“The moment I am fondest of is I remember looking up into the stand and there was a group from Merthyr RFC that had come over and they had a banner with my name on. I saw them during the game and managed to meet them afterwards. My abiding memory of my first cap is being able to share it with that group of people.”
By now, Steve Hansen was Wales’ head coach, with fellow Kiwi Graham Henry having departed earlier in the year.
“I had a really good relationship with Steve,” said Sidoli. “He was a very strong, open-minded coach. He changed a lot of things for the better. He put a lot of faith in us as youngsters and he saw potential in me. We argued once or twice, as you do. He would want to try something and I would say I’m not sure if that will work. But he was very much of a view that if you are
…. to be continued
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