WINDSOR footballer Ben Stewart grew up playing rugby league with the Windsor Wolves, not knowing his family heritage would one day give him the chance to play international football.
Stewart has been representing the Italian national rugby league team for the past five years after former NRL player and Italian coach David Riolo asked him if he’d like to represent an Italian side at a rugby league carnival in Sydney several years ago.
From there, he has gone on to help the national team to qualify for the World Cup later this year.
Stewart’s Italian blood lies in his mother’s side of the family and he said playing international rugby league was the furthest thing from his mind while growing up as a youngster with the Wolves.
“I never really gave it a thought because I didn’t even think Italy played rugby league, I just assumed it was all soccer and rugby union.
“They’re trying to promote the game in Italy through the Australian-based players which will help strengthen the game over there and help the guys in Italy who aren’t too familiar with the rules of the game.
“When we go overseas we get together with a lot of the Italian boys to show them a few skills and techniques so we can promote the game as much as possible.”
Stewart was a part of the successful World Cup qualifying campaign that took him throughout Europe, playing against other hopeful nations in a bid to play on the world stage – and against the best players in the game.
The Windsor Wolves club captain said making the World Cup had given the game a massive boost as it tries to compete against the might of football and rugby union.
“We’ve probably advanced the game in Italy by 10 years just by making the World Cup. In the qualifiers we had one game in Italy and it was good to see the crowd out there supporting us,” Stewart said.
“If we can get enough interest in the game it can be massive over there. Just by making the World Cup, it’s going to be in the newspapers in Italy and it will be in the news.
“I’ve been able to play over in England, Wales, Scotland, Serbia and we went over to Italy twice, so it’s been a good way to see parts of Italy and the world while doing something I love.”
Stewart played his role in the qualifying process – scoring a crucial try in Italy’s 19-all draw with Lebanon which was enough to see them through to the World Cup.
Now that they’ve qualified for the tournament, Italy is going about strengthening its team even further and Stewart even predicted they could surprise a few of the more fancied sides when the tournament kicks off in England in October.
“Because we’ve made the World Cup, they’ve scouted all the NRL, Queensland Cup and NSW Cup players that are Italian so they can get the strongest side,” Stewart said.
“There’s a lot of good players in the NSW and Queensland Cups in the squad, along with a few NRL players.
“Depending on how many NRL-based players they get, I think there’s a dozen eligible to play, I think they have a really strong chance and could make the quarter-finals.”
Stewart urged any footballers to check up on their heritage, believing there was plenty of players out there who don’t realise the opportunities the modern game is providing them with.
“Italy has an under-16s team and they’re really trying to promote the game and get the young Italian players together so they can start representing Italy,” Stewart said.
“A lot of the other European countries are starting to do it, too, and realise there’s an avenue for young players to represent their heritage. It’s helped me play better. Being around NRL players and seeing how they conduct themselves at training and before games and seeing the environment has helped my game.”