Italy wanted a victory and a bonus point for four tries against the USA in their drive for a spot in the 2011 Rugby World Cup; they got it, but only just.
The Eagles were outmatched in the scrum by a wide margin, gave up orders of magnitude more penalties than the Italians, and spent most of the second half with their backs against the wall.
And yet, the USA battled hard, scored their requisite one try, and made Italy work very hard indeed for a 27-10 victory.
The USA was led by outside center Paul Emerick, who was outstanding for all 80 minutes, a brave Mate Moeakiola, who had to leave twice due to a recurrence of his bleeding head wound suffered against Russia, and Todd Clever, who matured drastically as a player in New Zealand.
The USA got a weird start as they revisited those early-season fumbles in contact. Most surprising of all was fullback Chris Wyles, who made a few early drops. Italy used the USA mistakes to put pressure on the Eagles, and scored within four minutes as they thumped the Americans back over a series of phases, and then found brilliant No. 8 Sergio Parisse for a score under the posts.
At that point it looked as if Italy would have their way with the USA, but the Americans bucked up and tightened their defense.
John van der Giessen and Mike MacDonald charged down a kick to force a turnover and get a chance for Taku Ngwenya. But little breaks turned into a series of phases, and that was, again, where the USA had trouble finding space.
At the scrums, they kept giving up penalties, but they also started to cause Italy problems in the lineout. A stolen lineout in the Italian half led to a penalty, and a kick to touch by Wyles. From that lineout, Clever did well to win the ball and drop it down to scrumhalf Mike Petri. Petri caught the ball with his fingertips, and spun it out to the backs. Emerick blasted through the Italian defenders, breaking three tackles and avoiding another. The center raced to the line and just before he was caught dished a backhand pass to Chris Wyles in support and the fullback was over easily.
Wyles converted to tie the game 7-7 at 18 minutes.
Italy pressured off the restart, and forced a knock-on in the ruck. From the scrum they got a penalty and wing Mirco Bergomasco easily hit the kick to give his side a 10-7 lead.
The Eagles broke out of their offensive funk a little. They tried a few different moves and some razzle dazzle. It didn’t produce tries, but in the first half it worried Italy and got the Americans very close.
A long series of attacks earned the Americans a penalty in front of the posts and Wyles landed the kick to tie the game 10-10 at 27 minutes.
The strain of playing four matches in 16 days started to show a little. Hooker Chris Biller had to leave with an apparent sternum knock. Moeakiola had to leave with blood streaming from his forehead. The prop returned; the hooker didn’t.
With ten minutes to go in the first half, the USA started to get on the wrong side of referee George Clancy. Italy took a lineout deep in the USA 22 and mauled well to the line. There was a clear Italian knock-on at the base of the ruck, but it wasn’t called, and seconds later flyhalf Luciano Orquera glided past an underwhelming grab by Andrew Suniula to score. The wind took the conversion attempt, but Italy led 15-10.
Italy finally got clean ball from a scrum (they’d muffed one and the others were all penalties) and used it to launch an attack up the middle. They were assisted by referee Clancy, who blocked two USA tacklers and didn’t seem to notice. The block directly led to Italy getting right to the line. Lou Stanfill and Todd Clever made desperate tackles to prevent a clean touchdown, but Italy kept up the pressure. Andrew Suniula made a big tackle on Parisse to stop another try and more tackles seem to hold Italy off. Then another unhappy moment, as two Italian players got up to move on despite being held in the tackle. The second man, prop and Man of the Match Martin Castrogiovanni, scored a try.
That try essentially ended the first half, a half where the Eagles had some real scoring chances, and scored on two, but were unfortunate to be behind by ten.
In the second half the USA tried to open up the game, putting kicks on the wing for James Paterson and Ngwenya. None really caught hold, though, and served to have Italy get the ball back. Andrew Suniula, hit by a cold during the week, was replaced early by Blaine Scully, forcing a shift that put Scully at fullback, Paterson was outside center, and Wyles on the wing. The players kept working hard, but couldn’t quite get anything going.
They weren’t helped by the man with the whistle, who started calling penalties for diving on the ball when the players who hit the deck were nowhere near the ball.
The most punishing and inspirational part of the game came 54 minutes in. The Eagles had just barely stopped the Italians from scoring thanks to some outstanding scramble defense. Italy got a penalty, and called for the scrum. There followed then a period of seven minutes where the teams had scrum after scrum. Some collapsed. Some resulted in penalties against the USA. None resulted in a penalty for early shove. Eventually Lou Stanfill was penalized for coming off the scrum too early, and yellow-carded, deservedly. But even with only seven men in the pack, somehow the Eagles got out of it. As Italy’s scrum marched inexorably to the tryline, Parisse lost control of the ball, and No. 8 Nic Johnson, in on the flank, kicked the ball into touch.
From there van der Giessen stole the lineout, and the Americans escaped what seemed an inevitable scoring opportunity.
Italy got over the line at 64 minutes thanks to a penalty that the entire side of the stands behind touch judge Wayne Barnes (who made the call) disputed. USA bodies tried to get under the ball and no one, not even the TMO, could see the try. Out of jail again.
But not for long. Italy had the five-meter scrum and earned the penalty try they’d been searching for when the USA scrum collapsed again. That made it 27-10.
The Eagles had a few more chances to attack, but multiple-phase attacks just didn’t produce any major breaks. Emerick was outstanding, making some useful runs and one massive tackle and steal that got the crowd going.
In the end, Italy was relieved to have escaped the game with a bonus-point win. The USA players capped off as gutsy a series of internationals as any fan might wish to see. Their game plan may have only produced four tries (one a game), and one victory, but the players all put everything they had into the contest. Hayden Smith was monstrous, leading all USA players with 300 minutes of rugby. Mike MacDonald capped his USA record-making 11th World Cup appearance with an awesome game, complete with some of his most memorable runs. And Clever was a leader through and through.
“They are a tough team,” said the USA captain. “They know what to do under pressure. We gave it all we had. Not sure what some of the [scrum] calls were. I’m just super proud of the guys. We played for each other and for the fans and for the Americans back home.”
1. Mike MacDonald
2. Chris Biller (Thiel @ 29)
3. Matekitonga Moeakiola (Pittman 7-13, 54-)
4. John van der Giessen
5. Hayden Smith
6. Louis Stanfill
7. Todd Clever (c)
8. Nic Johnson (LaValla @ 68)
9. Mike Petri (Usasz @ 63)
10. Roland Suniula (Malifa @ 70)
11. James Paterson
12. Andrew Suniula (Scully @44)
13. Paul Emerick
14. Takudzwa Ngwenya
15. Chris Wyles
16. Phil Thiel
17. Shawn Pittman
18. Scott LaValla
19. Pat Danahy
20. Tim Usasz
21. Nese Malifa
22. Blaine Scully
Tries: Parisse, Orquero, Castrogiovanni, Penalty Try
Convs: Mirco Bergamasco 2
Pens: Mirco Bergamasco
1. Salvatore Perugini (Lo Cicero @ 50)
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini (Ongaro @ 72)
3. Martin Castrogiovanni (Perugini @70)
4. Quintin Geldenhuys
5. Cornelius van Zyl
6. Alessandro Zanni
7. Mauro Bergamasco
8. Sergio Parisse (c)
9. Fabio Semenzato
10. Luciano Orquera
11. Mirco Bergamasco (Derbyshire @ 70)
12. Gonzalo Garcia
13. Gonzalo Canale
14. Tommaso Benvenuti (Toniolatti @ 53)
15. Luke McLean
16. Fabio Ongaro
17. Andrea Lo Cicero
18. Marco Bortolami
19. Paul Derbyshire
20. Edoardo Gori
21. Riccardo Bocchino
22. Giulio Toniolatti