Whatever awaits Maxime Mbanda when Italy take on England, it won’t compare with the importance and difficulty and trauma of the work he volunteered for earlier this year – which earned him the gratitude of his nation.
The 28-year-old Zebre flanker is among the Azzurri replacements for the Six Nations decider against Eddie Jones’s Red Rose side at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. He and his team-mates are underdogs facing a monumental task in trying to compete with their title-chasing English opponents.
But it is sport. It is not a life-and-death scenario, the like of which Mbanda was plunged into when the first COVID wave hit Italy. When the fixture against England on March 14 was postponed due to the pandemic and sport was put on hold across the world, the surgeon’s son decided he needed to help. After a quick online enquiry, he was straight into action.
Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda worked as an ambulance driver during the pandemic
‘When we found out what was happening, when we couldn’t play the match against England, they sent us home and said there would be no games,’ he said. ‘On the news was just about coronavirus so I just did a Google search for three words, “coronavirus, Parma, help”. I found an article about the collaboration between the Parma commune (council) and the Yellow Cross.
‘So I called them and on the first day we provided the service of food and drugs to the old people, because they couldn’t leave home to save their lives. But on the second day, because there are a lot of older people working for the Yellow Cross, they called and asked me if I was ready to help with transporting patients to another hospital, because the Parma hospital was full at that time.
‘So I started doing that job. I was worried about it because I had a girlfriend at home and we found out that we were expecting a baby, so I was worried for her. But the other volunteers really helped me a lot with my worries, because they taught me that we were trying to save people’s lives.
After being sent home, the surgeon’s son decided he needed to help in Parma
‘We weren’t doing the same job as the doctors and nurses, but every time we took a person with COVID to another hospital, you have his life in your hands, so you have to act in the best way to save his life. This kind of way to think helped me so much. Every time I woke up in the morning, my first thought was to go to the Yellow Cross, to save people.’
Mbanda soon recognised the magnitude of what he was doing. Patients in a critical condition were relying on him and other volunteers, at their time of greatest need. The work was mentally tough, due to the direct interaction with people struggling to survive – and some who didn’t.
‘It was hard, because I wasn’t used to seeing all that suffering and seeing people dying,’ he said. ‘The people were alone, without their family. I wasn’t the driver, I was in the ambulance with them; so I was the substitute son or cousin or nephew.
‘It was very personal. When they were being taken from one hospital to another one, they thought that they were going to die, but it was the reverse; we were trying to help them stay alive. We had to help them understand why they were moving and I was there to try to calm them.
The 27-year-old witnessed incredible suffering among the patients he helped
‘I just tried to smile, make people laugh and think of nicer things. Some people I was with recognised me because they supported Zebre Rugby Club, but at that time I wasn’t a rugby player, I was just a guy trying to help them – like lots of people were trying to help.’
Mbanda’s selfless deeds were eventually rewarded by Italy’s President, Sergio Mattarella. Last month, the proud player was honoured as a Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic – receiving a medal at the team hotel in Rome. He was touched, but also slightly uncomfortable to be singled out, as someone with the engrained attitude of a team sportsman.
‘It was a big honour for me and it was completely unexpected,’ he said. ‘But I started playing rugby because I love sharing feelings and wins, so it is the same with this – it was for everyone who tried to help. I want to share it with all the volunteers who have helped in Italy, in Europe and around the world. I am happy, but we can see on the news now that it is still an emergency and we mustn’t under-estimate it. It is really sad, what is happening. We wait just wait for a vaccine.’
That desperate wait goes on, but the wait for Test rugby’s return in Europe is finally over. Mbanda knows that any game against England is a daunting proposition, but given what he has already been through in 2020, he is understandably regarding it as a joyful prospect and an opportunity.
‘To be back on rugby pitches again is awesome because rugby is my life,’ he said. ‘We will try to do our best. We know England are one of the best teams in the world and we are lucky to be able to play in this situation. We have never beaten England so maybe this weekend it can be our first victory. We always go on the pitch to win, so we can’t wait to play. And we will have fun, for sure.’
Mbanda understands how devastating coronavirus can be having witnessed it first hand