Burgess’s rugby journey nothing on Zisti’s

If you think Sam Burgess is doing it tough at the Rugby World Cup, spare a thought for fellow former league convert Nick Zisti.

A member of St George’s 1996 grand final line-up, Zisti is the only player in history to have made his professional rugby union debut at a World Cup.

At Twickenham against Jonny Wilkinson’s England no less.

“I felt like I was running around like a headless chook. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Zisti told AAP as he recalled his incredible tale from 16 years ago.

Zisti was playing on the wing for Italy and the 67-7 loss was just the start of his baptism by fire.

In his next game he came up against the All Blacks and Jonah Lomu in full flight.

“Unbelievable,” he said.

“They just killed us. They put a hundred points on us.

“All I can remember is running back and forth trying to cover tackle.

“I saved a couple of tries, I remember I tackled Jonah once.”

It was the highlight of his 1999 World Cup experience.

“I’ve never seen a more phenomenal athlete than Jonah live. He was incredible,” he said.

Zisti empathises with Burgess, the South Sydney grand final hero dropped this week for England’s final match against Uruguay, a scapegoat for the hosts’ embarrassing elimination before the knockout stages.

But his own introduction to the 15-man game was even more of a whirlwind.

After scoring 19 tries in 18 games for the Dragons from 1994-96, then being the Hunter Mariners’ highest pointscorer in their only season in 1997 and finishing his NRL career at Cronulla, Zisti joined the Bradford Bulls in the English Super League.

But just a handful of games into his three-year deal, he received a note at Bradford asking him to call the Italian Rugby Union, who needed players for their impending entry to the Six Nations.

“They flew me over from Leeds to Rome – hush hush – on our day off and I was pretty much sold from the moment I arrived at the airport,” said Zisti, who qualified through his Italian grandfather Nicola.

“The weather was better and there were people riding around on scooters.”

Bulls coach Matt Elliott granted Zisti a release in March of 1999 and he immediately went into World Cup camp, then straight into Italy’s probables side against the possibles.

Then smack bang into England at Twickenham.

“It was surreal,” he said.

“I think they thought because I was physically stronger coming from league, and that I’d played in big games, but they actually never saw a tape of me before I went there.

“It was massive news in Italy. I couldn’t read the articles but most of the articles were saying: where does this guy come from?

“It was like I was an alien from out of space who was just flown into the Italian national team.”

After struggling with injury and losing his place in the Test team, Zisti regained it after bagging a 90-metre try in Rugby Roma’s big win over the Michael Cheika-coached high flyers from Padova.

As fate would have it, he returned for the Azzuri’s Six Nations clash with England.

Marking up in the centres on Mike Catt, Zisti did enough to retain his place for one last Test against France.

“That was probably the highlight of my career,” he said.

“It was at Stade de France, the soccer World cup was the year before and I was sitting in the change rooms thinking how Ronaldo had been in there.”

Two weeks later, Zisti broke his leg as Rugby Roma went on to win their first Super 10 title in years before going broke.

Spurning an offer to join Racing Club in Paris, Zisti returned home to Sydney after speaking with Cheika to play for Randwick.

It was not to be.

After 14 knee operations, he lasted one training session.

“But I feel incredibly blessed,” said Zisti, son-in-law of premiership-winning NRL coach John Lang.

“When I was 15 my dream was to play under-21s for Souths and then all of this other stuff happened.

“When George Piggins approached me one day and said Souths were looking at me to play first grade I nearly fell over.

“I didn’t dream of ever playing for Australia like most kids. I didn’t think I was going to get past 21s to be honest.

“I was very lucky.”

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