MARCO BORTOLAMI, one of the most influential and respected players in the Guinness Premiership, has pledged his future to Gloucester Rugby until 2010.
The Italian national captain, a blazing success in his debut season last year after switching from Narbonne, has signed a two-year extension to his existing deal to cement his place at Kingsholm for two further seasons.
Bortolami (27) was made Italy's youngest captain in 2003 when he led the Azzurri into battle against the All Blacks, following his debut as a 20-year-old. He has since won 64 international caps and has developed into one of the best locks in the world.
"What can I say - Gloucester is my new home, my new life and my passion - for me to be able to stay for another two years is fantastic," he said.
"We made great progress last season and now it is up to us to build on it and create something very special in Gloucester's history.
"I believe in what we are trying to achieve and in Dean Ryan's philosophy for the team. We are young, we are ambitious and we want to be successful."
Bortolami's signature follows hot on the heels of a number of key contract extensions already made by Ryan as he creates stability in his playing squad. Alex Brown, Andy Hazell, James Simpson-Daniel and Will James have all re-signed since the beginning of the season.
"When Marco arrived at the club from Narbonne we believed he had the qualities to become a world class second row - not only as a player but also as an individual - and it delights me we have such a player within our squad," said head coach Dean Ryan.
"The re-signings show we are taking great care of this squad over the long-term. We are trying to build something that will create a legacy at Gloucester Rugby and Marco is central to that - I am absolutely delighted we have extended his contract. It is crucial for the club and its progress."
Speaking to the local media this week, Richard Hibbard expressed his excitement ahead of the West Country derby and that there is an extra spring in the step of the Cherry and Whites ahead of the tough challenge.
With such a short turnaround between the two games, and Gloucester looking to reintegrate several players into the line-up after the Autumn international series, Tom Savage told GRTV that the Cherry and Whites will keep changes to a minimum for the European Rugby Challenge Cup game in Zebre on Saturday.
Gloucester travel to Italy this weekend to take on Zebre in Round Four of the European Rugby Challenge Cup. The Cherry and Whites defeated the Italian side 35-10 last Sunday, but Director of Rugby David Humphreys is looking for an improved performance in the return fixture.
On a tough evening at Kingsholm, Gloucester could escape neither a suffocating Bath defence, nor the whistle of referee Greg Garner as six penalties and a penalty try paved the way to a 39-16 win for the visitors.
Gloucester Rugby welcome Sione Kalamafoni, Greig Laidlaw and Tom Palmer back to the starting line up and feature David Halaifonua in a matchday squad for the first time, as they resume Aviva Premiership action against Bath Rugby at Kingsholm on Saturday (kick off 5:30pm).