With the Test Window now open, Italy kicked off their Autumn Nations Series in Padua against Samoa. The visitors were given an immediate chance as Christophe Ridley and his crew wrongly adjudged that Michele Lamaro had not attempted a wrap during a low tackle on Danny Toala, and with the Samoans kicking to the corner, but while the visitor’s pressure saw Chris Vui go over for a try, the officials found a knock-on in the build-up to deny it. Both teams were looking to put pressure on the opposition breakdown early on, but the calm head of Stephen Varney dealt with it, and a kick to the corner allowed his chasers to put the pressure on and win a penalty which Tommaso Allan, starting at fullback, kicked with ease for an early lead. In a physical battle, Samoa’s handling was costing them as they tried to attack the defensive line, while Rodney Iona pushed his first penalty attempt to the right of the posts on 17 minutes.Varney continued to control the game with his smart kicks to the corner, and when Italy followed up a driving maul with a backs move, Juan Ignacio Brex successfully hit an angle that took him straight through the defence and over for the opening try. Buoyed by this, the Azzurri were immediately back on the attack from the restart, sweepend round the corner on second phase rather than looking for the clearance kick, which led to an overlap that allowed them to break from their own 22 in numbers and at pace to go the length, with Pierre Bruno the man to touch down. Allan soon added a penalty to stretch the lead to 20-0 just before the half hour. Samoa were still taking on the Azzurri defence but lacked the clinical edge as too many balls went astray, while the next Italian visit to the Samoan 22 saw Nigel Ah Wong sent to the bin for a high tackle on Allan, and after Paolo Garbisi kicked the resulting penalty, the Azzurri took advantage of the extra man to kick a 50-22 off the restart and send Montanna Ioane over for a try on the stroke of half time for a 28-0 lead.
As the second half started, a dropped high ball from Iona gifted the Azurri with a scrum in the 22, and as the wheel encouraged them to go to the blind side, Ioane had the strength to stay in the pitch and dot down as Iona tried tackling him into touch, with Allan nailing the touchline conversion to make it 35-0. With Samoa getting back to a full complement, they were back on the attack, and after a 5m lineout maul crabbed infield, a late look back to the blind side saw D’Angelo Leuila get his arm through the tackle and offload to put his centre partner Ulupano Junior Seuteni over for a try. A knock-on off the restart gifted Italy with a scrum in the 22, and when too many Samoan forwards went to wrap around the breakdown to the open side, Varney hit the ball back to the blind side to put debutant back row Lorenzo Cannone over for a try, with older brother Niccolò the first there to celebrate with him. As the game reached the hour mark, the Samoan line was under siege again, and Paolo Garbisi’s grubber under penalty advantage was deflected straight into the hands of Bruno, who gratefully accepted his second try of the match. Samoa never gave up, though, and as Italy looked to play out from their line with 10 minutes remaining, they turned the ball over out wide in the Azzurri 22 to send debutant Duncan Paia’aua over for a try, and with just a minute left, Theo McFarland was released down the left wing, with the Saracen having just enough strength to fight his way to the line and stretch over for the consolation try and a 49-17 final score that will move Italy above Samoa in the world rankings.
Restarting the attack
One thing that became very noticeable in this game was Italy’s plan to get the game going again when the restart was coming to them.
Usually at the restart, a team would look to clear either immediately or after setting a phase to give a structured platform. Italy however were looking to set up a breakdown in the middle of the field within the middle of the pitch. And at this point, their next phase depended on the defensive set-up. If the defence was well set on both sides, then the Azzurri would look to clear through Varney or Garbisi. However, as with Bruno’s first try, if the defence just expected the clearance and did not sufficiently over either side of the breakdown, the team were ready to wrap around to the lightly defended side late and en masse, creating an overlap that would allow them to break downfield with enough support to go the distance.
It’s a high risk/ high reward tactic, as if it works and they manage to break, they will have a very good chance of going the length as it being a set move means that they have pacey players and people with good handling skills making the break, and plenty of support runners there who are expecting the team to break away. However, there is always the risk in setting up the midfield breakdown of a handling error or giving away some form of turnover or penalty at the breakdown.
Was this just a tactic devised for taking on Samoa, who will not have the same level of defensive organisation as Tier 1 nations? It will be interesting to see if they do the same against Australia next week.
Right now, I’m very worried about Samoan Rugby. The team has hardly played together during this cycle, and that lack of cohesion showed, with Rodney Iona looking bereft of ideas at fly half. While the team clearly has the physicality and there is a clear quality in th team, they need to be playing reglar rugby to get as a team, which will reduce the handling errors, errant passes and lack of defensive organisation. Only 1 year out from the World Cup, they are running out of time, and with a pool that includes England, Argentina, Japan and an impressive Chile team, there is a distinct danger that they not only miss out on a top 3 finish in the pool (automatic qualification for RWC2027) but in fact end the tournament bottom of the pool!
And the worry doesn’t just stop there, as something that is clearly standing out to me is just how many of Seilala Mapusua’s squad are either the wrong side of 30 or in their very late 20s. Very few of these players will be around or in their prime when the next World Cup comes around, so the next cycle will require a massive rebuild… but are the players there? I can’t help worry that we are seeing the slow decline of Samoan rugby, and hope that it can be turned around soon.