Italians embrace marae welcome

After a taste of New Zealand culture at the weekend, the Italian rugby team were today heading out for a taste of adventure and a spot of Kiwi tucker.

The team members were formally welcomed to Nelson by a 500-strong gathering in a dramatic and emotional powhiri at Whakatu Marae on Saturday afternoon.

They were challenged on their arrival with a wero and karanga from the hosts, with many of the team visibly surprised, some taking photos on their iPhones or iPads.

After a number of whaikorero and waiata, the team received their test caps from former International Rugby Board chairman Syd Millar and Rugby New Zealand 2011 director Paul Collins.

Dr Millar said he wished the Italian team all the best, and looked forward to the historic occasion in Dunedin when Italy would hopefully qualify for the quarterfinals.

The team offered a koha of their match jerseys, and engaged in hongi with many of the hosts.

Once the formal ceremony was over, the team mingled with the community, posing for photographs and chatting with excited fans, before moving inside to share kai – a mixture of Italian and Maori dishes.

Italian captain Sergio Parisse said he enjoyed the day, and was happy to be in Nelson.

Hooker Fabio Ongaro said the welcome was a huge surprise, and he enjoyed learning more about Kiwi culture.

This was his second time in New Zealand, but he had never experienced anything like the welcome before. "This is a big celebration for us," he said.

Iwi liaison Barney Thomas said he had not expected such a strong turnout, and the day was a great way to welcome the team to Nelson.

Members of the Italian community also enjoyed the welcome.

Community representative Tony Romano said he was thrilled with the fantastic turnout.

"I think from what I have heard, Italy is Nelson's most favoured foreign team for the World Cup," he said.

He was glad the team were finally here, and hoped they would go away with fond memories of their stay, he said.

Tony Gargiulo joked that he enjoyed watching the older Italian women getting "up close and personal" with the young rugby players. "It's taken them back to their youth."

Today, the team were to spend the afternoon at Happy Valley Adventures north of Nelson.

Co-owner Jill Anderson said she was looking forward to showing them a slice of Kiwi adventure.

After a barbecue lunch – with the players cooking their own steaks – the team would enjoy a game of paintball, take in the scenery on a horse trek, or tear around the landscape on motorcycles.

Mrs Anderson said the day would be a laid-back affair, with the players encouraged to "go with the flow".

It was a pity the team were not playing paintball against the Australian team, their rivals in their first game at Auckland's North Harbour Stadium on Sunday, she said.

The Nelson Mail