Sebastian Negri still remembers the view from the rear-view window of his dad’s car. Darkness. The family farm fading from sight as they fled from Robert Mugabe’s henchmen.
“I was eight years old, Zimbabwe was going through a difficult time and the farmers were being forcefully removed,” he says. “I remember one day playing in the garden, enjoying farm life with my brothers, then all this commotion starts in the early evening.
“They come on to our farm and Dad says, ‘Kids, we’re going to have to go away for a while”. I go to my room, get my cricket bat and my rugby ball, pack a few toys and expect to be home in a few days.
“I remember getting into the back seat of the car. Dad says, ‘Keep quiet’ and then he turns off all the car lights and we escaped from our own home. I remember looking out of the back window towards home and that was the last time I ever saw it. Everything was lost in 12 hours.”
Whenever Negri sings the Italian national anthem, he thinks of that night in Zimbabwe. He remembers how the Italian embassy intervened to rescue his mum from a hostage situation and how relatives in Milan came to their aid when they arrived in the capital of Harare.
“Mum went back to fetch a few valuable items and she was held hostage for 12 hours. She was held in the house and told she wasn’t going anywhere. It was traumatic. I can’t even imagine what that was like. We were lucky the authorities and the Italian embassy got involved and got her out of there. Luckily no one was harmed.
“We went to Harare for 12 months and I used to say, ‘Dad, why can’t we just go home?’ Growing up we had open spaces, horses, fishing, motorbikes. Dad employed over 1000 people on the farm. It was tobacco, maize, apple orchards. A massive operation. To lose it all was huge.
“My uncle and aunt were beaten. A lot of Zimbabweans went through even more difficult times. People lost their lives. When something like that happens, you realise family is the most important thing. My parents kept such a positive attitude, put us before everything.
“Our family in Italy were there for us when we needed them. A lot of South Africans and Zimbabweans were also there for us. When you get an opportunity later in life to represent those people who have helped you along the way, that adds passion and desire to make them proud.’
Negri, a flanker, is the latest player to come off Zimbabwe’s production line, following David Pocock, Tendai Mtwarira and Dave Ewers. His family moved to South Africa, before Negri relocated to the UK in 2014 to study at Hartpury College. He played in the same university team as England scrum-half Harry Randall, before settling back in Treviso.
“A lot of Zimbabweans have that fight within them. Not just for rugby, for all sports. You grow up outdoors and play a lot of sport at school. There would be a decent Zim XV. I played with Dave Denton.
“My best friend, Tom Curran, plays for England. We played cricket growing up together. I’ve known him since we were three or four years old. He came across to South Africa too and we went to college together.
“During the last lockdown, when our game against England was called off, I went to London for Tom’s birthday and ended up getting stuck there. I stayed with him for just under two months. I think he was pleased to see the back of me!”
With 37 caps to his name, Negri is the most experienced player in the Italian ranks. He has never won a game in the Six Nations but his parents taught him to stay positive.
“Our big thing going forward is that we want to get respect and credibility back,” he says. ‘Everyone looks at Italy and says, ‘They don’t deserve to be in the Six Nations.’ We still showcase why we deserve to be in it.
“When you play against the top teams it’s hard but we’ve just got to create a strong base to get respect and credibility. The boys here are really hungry for success, to make things right.
“It’s very easy to keep saying things look positive but we’ve got to be consistent to prove all the people wrong.”