AS an Italian who grew up playing rugby close to the footballing hotbed of Naples, Josh Furno knows all about cherishing the oval ball in a land where the round ball is king.

So as he prepares to make his Newcastle Falcons debut in tomorrow’s Aviva Premiership opener at Leicester Tigers, the 24-year-old lock forward feels perfectly at home in a city where the rugby club has to punch above its weight to steal the spotlight from its footballing neighbour.

“Obviously the main obsession in Italy is football, but my family had always been involved in rugby so it never felt unusual for me to take the path I did,” said Furno, who left Italy to play for Narbonne and Biarritz in France before transferring to Tyneside this summer. “My dad played rugby his whole life, as did all my cousins, and I was never into soccer.

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“I was born in Melbourne, but my dad was Italian and we moved to Italy when I was six. We still have family in Australia though, so I was back and forward all the time. I played school rugby when I was a young kid in Australia, but it wasn’t really until I got to Italy that I started to take it more seriously.”

Having emerged as a promising second-row forward with Viadana, it has not taken long for Furno to establish himself as one of his country’s leading lights.

He was Italy’s stand-out performer during this spring’s Six Nations, stringing together a sequence of impressive displays that persuaded Newcastle director of rugby Dean Richards he would make an ideal addition to a Falcons squad that has undergone a major rebuild this summer.

Ten new players have arrived at Kingston Park, with Furno adding some much-needed mobility and class to a forward unit that looks more robust than has been the case for a number of seasons.

Last season, Falcons careered down the league after a reasonable start and would almost certainly have been relegated had Worcester not been so poor in the first half of the campaign.

With London Welsh having spent a decent amount of money to strengthen the squad that was promoted from the Championship last season, there doesn’t look to be another Worcester in the top-flight this time around, so Falcons will have to improve markedly if they are not to become embroiled in another protracted battle against the drop.

“This season is definitely going to be a challenge, but we can only do better than last year,” said Furno. “We’re really looking forward to getting some results, although there are no easy games at this level.

“Pre-season has been good – a lot longer than it normally is in France because of the fixture list. That has been positive and we have been working hard, so I am sure the team can do good things this season.”

Having tested himself in the Pro 12, French Top 14 and Heineken Cup, not to mention the Six Nations and international Tests against the leading teams from the southern hemisphere, Furno will complete a notable set when he makes his Premiership debut tomorrow.

An away game at Leicester’s Welford Road is hardly the easiest of introductions, but the Italian cannot wait to experience his first taste of English competition.

“I enjoyed a great experience down in France, but I was off contract and wanted to move to the Premiership,” he said. “It’s a really good competition which I have always admired, and I think I’ll get a lot from testing myself in this level of tournament.

“Carlo (Del Fava) was a big influence on my decision (to join Falcons), and I had a long chat with him before I made my choice. He pushed me big time, and spent a lot of time talking about the club, the area and all the good things he experienced during his time here.

“Carlo really enjoyed himself as a Newcastle player, and he’s still in the region even after retiring. He was a big factor in me deciding to opt for the Falcons.”