Despite being only 25 years old, Italy captain Marco Bortolami has already achieved more than many players manage in an entire career.
He first turned out for the youth teams of Italian Super 10 side Petrarca Padova – his home-town club – at the age of 10, and has been making rapid progress ever since.
After impressing for the Petrarca senior side as a teenager, Bortolami earned his first appearance for the Italian Under-21s at the age of 20 before soon taking over the captaincy, leading the young Azzurri in two Six Nations campaigns at that level.
It was not long before Bortolami would win senior honours either, making his full Italy debut in June 2001 in a friendly against Namibia.
Bortolami’s phenomenal rise through the international ranks reached a pinnacle in 2002 when, on the tour to New Zealand, he became the youngest captain in Italy’s history, aged just 22.
Despite a lack of fitness and some poor performances during the November Test matches in that year, Bortolami retained the Italy captaincy for the 2003 Six Nations.
However, after just three games during that tournament – which saw the Azzurri beat Wales but suffer heavy defeats to Ireland and England, Bortolami was dropped to the Italian A side.
After enjoying such a successful rise to the top, the fall from grace could have been a real body-blow for Bortolami, but the forward proved he was made of stern stuff, helping the A team to a surprise away win over Scotland.
He was subsequently recalled to the Test side later that year and was immediately handed back the captaincy, although it was scrum-half Alessandro Troncon who led the Azzurri at the 2003 World Cup in Australia.
While he has been making great strides at international level, Bortolami’s club career has also blossomed.
Having proven himself a natural leader with both Petrarca and the various Italian national teams he has represented, Bortolami sought a new challenge in 2004 and joined French Top 14 outfit Narbonne.
Even though it was a step up in class from what he had been used to in Italy, Bortolami did not take long to find his feet in France and he quickly set about adding more strings to his bow.
Such was his impact at Narbonne that he was made captain and is now regarded as one of the club’s key players.
Bortolami admitted that his all-round game has been much improved since switching to France.
"Certainly the move to Narbonne made me a better player," he said.
"With all the respect to the Italian Super 10, playing in France’s Top 14 is totally different. Not only is it better but it is harder and more testing.
"In France I have learned to become more focused because all the games are hard and the teams are stronger than in Italy.
"’I believe in the last few years my style of play has improved a lot and the experience with Narbonne has made me more mature since I became the captain of this team, which has also helped my relationship with the Narbonne fans."
Bortolami’s next task is to lead Italy into the 2006 Six Nations, where the goal will be to avoid finishing up with the wooden spoon for a second successive season.
That will be a tough ask for a youthful Italy side but it would be another feather in Bortolami’s already over-stuffed cap if they manage to achieve it.