Life in lockdown: Australian Monty Ioane's Italian story

Monty Ioane has been training at home during the coronavirus lockdown. Henry Browne/Getty Images

While Australia's professional rugby players have been forced to take significant pay reductions because of the coronavirus pandemic, they have, for the most part, been spared the seriousness of the illness and its ramifications. But the same can't be said for one of their compatriots, who finds himself at the epicentre of the virus.

Former Queensland Reds academy member Monty Ioane -- nephew of former Wallabies flyer Digby Ioane -- has been plying his trade with Benetton Rugby Club near Treviso in northern Italy since the start of 2017. It has proved a rewarding career move, too, with Ioane on the verge of Test selection for the Azzurri when his residency period is served in November this year.

But his life, like all those in Italy, has also been turned upside down.

"I'd played a game over in Wales and to be honest no one was prepared for it, and I think that was probably the best thing because nobody was panic buying," Ioane told ESPN from his Treviso apartment earlier this week.

"So we'd played a game in Wales on the [Monday] night and then came back [to Italy] the next afternoon. The family and I went and spent some time in town; we had lunch and dinner out, and then we came back home, went to bed; I woke up the next morning and we got a call from Benetton saying Treviso had been put on lockdown. So that's how it all started."

Treviso, to the west of Venice, was among the first regions in Italy to be shut down before the nationwide lockdown came into force on March 8. Ioane and his Benetton teammates were able continue training for a few days in between, splitting into groups, before the country was placed under a blanket ban as the true extent of the COVID-19 crisis was realised.

"It feels like I've been in lockdown for about two-and-a-half months but I've honestly lost count," Ioane said. "It's been a long time, especially with the kids, because we had the rule where we weren't allowed to be more than 200 metres from your apartment or residence.

"That rule just got lifted last Thursday or Friday, so we've been going for walks here and then. But it's tough trying to keep the kids busy inside the house all day, for two-and-a-half months."

Looking back on his first two years in Italy, Ioane couldn't be more effusive in his love for life there. The desire to become a fully fledged professional forced him to seek opportunities overseas after a breakdown in his contract with the Reds academy, taking him to Paris, and then to New Zealand's Mitre 10 Cup, before the opportunity with Benetton arrived.

"Playing at Benetton, it's been awesome," Ioane told ESPN. "It's funny because I came to the team when the reputation here wasn't that good. The team was constantly losing -- apparently they used to be a walk-in-the-park kind of team -- but I came halfway through [2017/18] season because I was waiting for my visa, and they started to pick up a little bit. They had Marty Banks from the Highlanders, signed a couple of other New Zealanders; Whetu Douglas who plays No. 8 for the Crusaders now; and Nasi Manu, who's still here. So we had a good bunch of boys.

"But it's been a good experience and that year I arrived, and the year after, I actually played some really good footy. We were the underdogs, so people weren't really expecting a turnaround for us. And last season [2018/19] it was awesome because we ended up making the [PRO14] semifinals and we just lost in the last couple of minutes by a few points. So it's been a good experience."

The PRO14 tournament, which Benetton contest, is made up of teams from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, South Africa and Italy; the competition was suspended on March 12 as a result of the coronavirus, and remains suspended indefinitely -- the final originally set down for June 12 cancelled.

With the July Test window likely to be cancelled given travel restrictions and various border closures across the globe, there is a chance that European club rugby could resume and be played in its place, which is motivating Ioane to keep up with training in whatever limited way possible.

"I took a watt bike and a couple of dumbbells home but there hasn't been much else happening because I can't go road running," he said. "A couple of the boys got stopped while running. I haven't done any road running for about two months, so I'm a little bit worried [about conditioning] if they do continue the season.

"The lockdown might get lifted on May 3 and we're all [the players] are a bit worried about that; if they get the all clear we'll have about six weeks of training and then we'll start the season again."

While that may seem optimistic given the circumstances, Ioane has found other positives amid the devastation.

"Being in lockdown isn't so horrible because it gives you the opportunity to spend some lost time with the family. I think as long as you're keeping clean and staying away from people, I'm sure you'll be fine.

"To be honest you don't see anybody out on the streets because people are doing the right thing and are staying in their homes. In our street we are the only ones with little kids; when we go for walks, we're the only ones out and about. We have to get the kids out otherwise they would go crazy."

Vision of Italians playing music and singing together during lockdown went viral on social media, painting a positive story of a country that now has had more than 180,000 cases of the coronavirus and almost 25,000 deaths. Thankfully the number of new cases is falling, suggesting the worst of it might be over.

Ioane has seen people playing music on their balconies around Treviso, and he says the social media videos reflect the true Italian spirit -- something he has come to feel even more despite the fact he has spent much of the period under lockdown.

If anything, the experience has brought him closer to a country he hopes to represent on rugby's premier stage, perhaps before the end of the year.

"I think I qualify in November, which is quite exciting. It was never my plan and I almost came home [at one point] and gave Super Rugby a crack. But I realised Benetton had pretty much brought the best out of me.

"I'm definitely looking forward to it; it will be quite an exciting road, the challenge of playing Test rugby. So if I do get the opportunity, I would like to play for Italy for sure. But I can only wait and see if I get selected."