SCRUM-HALF Stephen Varney, who is a former pupil at Ysgol y Preseli in Crymych, took centre stage in Italy’s starting side to face England in the Guinness Six Nations at Twickenham on Saturday.

Italy head coach Franco Smith is building for the future, with a youthful team centred around talented young number nine Varney - but on the day England came through for a six-try 41-18 victory.

Originally from Rhoshill, near Cardigan, Varney won the Welsh Schools U16s Cup for Ysgol y Preseli in 2017, and came through the junior ranks Crymych RFC, before becoming a professional player.

The Welsh-speaking 19 year-old, who is the son of former Neath and Aberavon flanker Adrian Varney, had kept his place in the side that lost to France in their opener in Rome last weekend.

Like him, his mother was also born in west Wales, but both of her parents were born in Italy, hence his eligibility to play for the Azzurri – and he has seized the chance on the international stage.

He had a couple of outings for Scarlets West U16s, but wasn’t selected to be part of their pathway, and he took the opportunity to study sports science at Hartpury College, in Gloucestershire.

He was then offered a place with the Gloucester RFC Academy, where he caught the attention of the Italian Rugby Federation, and he duly took the chance to play for the Azzurri at age group level.

Varney – whose middle name is Lorenzo – had caught the eye of rugby supporters in Wales when he scored two tries off the bench for Italy’s Under-18s, playing against their Welsh counterparts.

Then last year he impressed again against Wales as he produced a man-of-the-match performance in the Azzurri’s 17-7 victory in the Under 20s Six Nations at Colwyn Bay, in January 2020.

A call-up to the senior squad for the autumn’s international campaign followed, only for him to be struck down by Covid-19 – but having fully recovered, he then made his Test debut as a replacement against Scotland in Florence.

Another appearance as a sub came against France – when Welsh referee Nigel Owens gave him instructions in Welsh – and this was followed by a dream first start for Italy against the land of his birth, Wales, in the final match of the Nations Cup in Llanelli.

Making his senior Six Nations Tournament debut against France last weekend, he showed talent and composure behind a pack that was going backwards, and he was bright, intelligent and lively around the fringes, despite Italy losing the match heavily 10-50.

In one of the highlights, Varney thought he had put Monty Ioane away after an outrageous double-dummy break – the second dummy bought by France’s man of the match Antione Dupont – only for the pass to be deemed forward.

Next up, he was playing against England’s 105-cap Ben Youngs last Saturday – and the young Gloucester scrum-half showcased his talent and confidence, before England gradually took charge.

Eight of the Italy players who started at Twickenham on Saturday were still in single figures for caps, but Varney is convinced of their ability, even if he admits the speed of their promotion to the senior side was unexpected.

"Personally, I didn’t think it would come this early, but Franco is looking towards the next World Cup so it’s good to give us some exposure in this Six Nations and in the next three years,” he said.

“It was clear playing in the Under-20 squad that there were a lot of good players - and hopefully some future stars.”