The second weekend jam-packed with Autumn Nations Series action kicked off in Florence as Italy hosted Australia. The Azurri were coming into the match off the back of a big win against Samoa, but were forced into a late change as Paolo Garbisi was ruled out with a hip injury, with Tommaso Allan taking over at fly half, and it took just 86 seconds for hi to open the scoring with a penalty after the Wallabies failed to secure the kickoff. Australia were fielding a highly-changed side from their last-gasp loss in France, and after a clever lineout move saw Will Skelton carry hard up to the line, Italy held out over a series of phases at the expense of an easy penalty for Noah Lolesio to even the scores. Allan missed his next kick at goal, but Italy just looked to keep coming each time they got the ball, and when Monty Ioane released Allan down the wing, the fly half was illegally impeded by Jake Gordon as he chipped on, resulting in a yellow card for the scrum half and a kick to the corner for the Azzurri, and as they looked to go wide, Tom Wright just managed to cover Ange Capuozzo’s grubber to the corner before the arrival of Pierre Bruno, though it came at the expense of another 5m lineout, which came infield to create a blind side for Italy to attack, with Luca Morisi’s looped pass sending Bruno over in the corner. And when Will Skelton was turned over just as the sin bin period was about to expire, Italy burst en masse down their right wing, creating an overlap that sent Capuozzo over for the try, Allan adding both conversions to make it a 14-point powerplay. A high tackle from Federico Ruzza gave Australia possession in the hosts’ 22, and after going through the hard phases, Lolesio’s wide pass allowed Tom Wright to dive over in the corner. As the clock ticked down on the half, both teams continued trying to go at each other, but both defences held firm and the teams went in at the break with Italy leading 17-8.
The Wallabies started the second half carrying more directly, and when Fraser McReight went over for the try, Lolesio was able to cut the deficit to 2 points with his conversion, while Allan soon struck back with a penalty of his own, while missing his next attempt. But just after the hour, a clever backs move after a lineout deep in Australian territory saw Capuozzo sent over for his second try of the game and a 10-point lead. A handling error at an Italian lineout saw Taniela Tupou turn the ball over, and he and Ned Hanigan sent replacement prop Tom Robertson over in the corner just moments after he inexplicably escaped a yellow card for a late hit on Tommaso Allan—which ended the Italian’s game—and Lolesio’s conversion brought the visitors back within 3 points with 10 minutes remaining. A high tackle from Darcy Swain allowed Allan’s replacement Edoardo Padovani a chance to extend the lead off the tee, but his kick from the 10m line fell well short, however his next kick from closer in with 5 minutes left was struck much better to stretch the lead to 6. The Azzurri were minutes away from making history, but there was time for one more Australian attack, and when Cadeyrn Neville forced his way over out wide on the final play, it all came down to the conversion. Ben Donaldson had only just come on for his debut 5 minutes earlier and now had the chance to save his nations’ blushes, but with all eyes on him, the young Waratahs fly half pushed a tricky kick wide of the far post, leaving the Azzurri to celebrate their first ever victory over the Wallabies, by a score of 28-27.
Onwards and upwards
This is another huge result for Italy and a statement to the rugby community. After ending a long run of losses to Tier 1 nations with victory in Wales at the end of the Six Nations, to now back that up with another Tier 1 scalp inthe summer shows just how far this team has come.
But it is so much more than that. This team performance was miles on from even the start of the 2022 Six Nations. This is a team that was not just dogged in defence, but also dangerous in attack, with big carriers in the pack like Lorenzo Cannone, who was a standout today, a balanced midfield in Morisi and Brex and a back 3 that had a great blend of pace, power and elusiveness. And then you must remember that this team was even missing its first choice fly half in Paolo Garbisi and also Jake Polledri, who continues his return from long-term injury. Even in the very recent past, the team lacked depth, but now it is truly starting to become apparent, and that is a testament to the rebuild Conor O’Shea started during his time in charge.
And now they have the personnel, they can go further. Their attack is not just passing down the line and hoping they can find space ot wide, or hitting one-up runners. This is a team that is creating shape and misdirection with their attacking in line with any Test team.
Granted both this and the Wales win were against weakened suads, but in both cases, it has still been a group of players who are in and around the wider squad on a regular basis, while even these teams would have been putting 50+ points on the Azzurri a few years ago. Now teams have to look at fielding their first string teams, and I don’t think it will be long until we see the Azurri beating one of those.
This is a dark day for Australia. Yes they may have put out a highly-changed squad, but the majority of these players will be pushing for a spot in the World Cup squad. And yet for much of the game they struggled to create anything of note and were generally outplayed by the hosts. This team should have been strong enough to beat Italy, instead it is just another example of an embarrassing defeat, which completely wipes out last week’s great performance against France.
But what was even worse was the stupid penalties. Jake Gordon’s yellow card was costly and unnecessary, and the final 10 minutes would not have been so close had Robertson been rightly sin binned for his cheap shot on Tommaso Allan, while a number of other players were also penalised for tackle offences.
To me, this suggests that the main issue is with the coaching. With Wales, Fiji and an improving Georgia in their pool, can they afford to continue with these inconsistent performances under Dave Rennie, or do they need to look to move on at head coach and hope that a late change has the same inspired affect that it did when Michael Cheika was brought in as head coach in October 2014, going on to reach the Rugby World Cup final a year later.