‘I never saw home again’: Zim-born Italian star’s rise to World Cup from depths of despair
The Rugby World Cup is littered with players whose heritage means more than where they grew up.
There are the likes of Mack Hansen, who was born in Australia but represents Ireland by way of his Irish mother. Or there are the countless former All Blacks who represent their Samoan, Fijian, and Tongan roots with those teams.
Then there’s Zimbabwe-born flanker Sebastian Negri, whose journey to play for Italy is one steeped in adversity and division.
As his 50th Test cap looms, the 29-year-old has reflected on a turbulent upbringing.
Negri was born in Zimbabwe to an Italian father and an Anglo-Zimbabwean mother.
The 1980s and ’90s were an especially turbulent time for Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s rule.
White farmers had their land seized and given to poorer black farmers. Operations were forceful and some farmers were killed in the land seizures.
Among those affected was Negri and his family. At just seven years old, in the middle of the night, his family left everything behind – never to see their home again.
“My immediate thoughts were, ‘Oh, dad is just taking us into the city and we will be back the next day or in a few days’,” Negri recounted to media at the Rugby World Cup.
“I didn’t really think too much of it – but you know it’s not good because you can see the emotion in your dad’s eyes and the worry.
“I remember getting into the back of the car and I remember Dad saying, ‘Keep quiet’ and turning all the lights off in the car and basically driving in the dark off the farm.
“I remember looking back out of the back window at home. I never saw home again.
“Mum went with a friend of hers a couple of days later and she was held hostage. We had to get the embassy involved, it wasn’t great. That was pretty scary.”
That was more than two decades ago.
Although Mugabe has since died and the political unrest has dissipated to a degree, Negri’s family has never been back to their farm that they say is still theirs.
“From the day we left, my dad’s never, ever gone back,” Negri explained.
“We’ve still got all the papers and everything. That farm is rightfully ours. Who knows, one day we might get it back.
“My dad employed over 1000 people, we had a school on the farm, we had a university, we had everything.
“It was a full operation, we had tobacco, maize, cattle, orchards, horses – and that was all taken from us.”
Negri and his family fled to South Africa and eventually wound up living in Durban.
His father’s side of the family were significant supporters of them in the wake of their traumatic experience.
That was a driving force behind his decision to represent Italy.
Negri grew up playing rugby in South Africa and caught the attention of South African-born Italian player Roland de Marigny, who recommended Negri to the Italian Rugby Federation.
That set the wheels in motion for Negri to represent Italy in the under-20 side in 2013. By 2016, he was playing for the national team.
This year’s Rugby World Cup is his second, and soon, he could bring up his 50th cap.
His father will be there for it too, something Negri said means more than anything to him.
“I am getting emotional just chatting about it,” said Negri.
“It’s going to be extremely emotional, a very, very special moment. My dad is my role model, so to have him there in the crowd will be extremely special.
“He was there when I got my first phone call from the international team that I was getting called up to travel to America to play my first test.
“It’s almost come full circle. For him to be there on Wednesday is going to be a moment I will hold very close for the rest of my life and tell my kids one day.
“They (Italy) were there for us when we needed them. When you lose everything in 12 hours or whatever it was… they were there for us,” he added.
“Whenever I run out on an Italy jersey, I am not only representing my close family, I’m representing all the Italian family who were for us when we needed them.
“I am extremely proud of that.”
Negri said the adversity faced early in his life has taught him how important family is and it’s how you respond that matters.
“That serves as a lesson not only in life but you can transfer that to rugby: You are going to get knocks along the way but it’s how you bounce back, stay positive and keep fighting through,” he said.
“I look no further than my family for that and I am extremely blessed and grateful for that lesson.”