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Beat Italy? Scrum, Kick, and Man Up

National Teams

Beat Italy? Scrum, Kick, and Man Up

David Barpal photo.

The USA faces Italy Saturday at 6pm Pacific Time at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif., hoping to get off the schneid after four straight losses to the Azzurri.

The first clash between the two was at the 1991 Rugby World Cup, won fairly convincingly by the Italians 30-9. Since then it’s been a series of very competitive games, but ultimately in Italy’s favor.

In 2004 the Tom Billups-coached Eagles played the Italians while on tour and lost 43-25 in a game where Italy led 30-3 at halftime only to see Paul Emerick, David Fee, and Albert Tuipulotu lead a comeback.

In 2011 the Eagles faced Italy in the World Cup once more. Emerick set up a Chris Wyles try, but some illogical penalties come scrum time helped Italy emerge 27-10 winners. And then in 2012, in front of a then-record Eagle crowd, the referee was once again in the middle of it all, handing out two red cards to the Eagles for borderline yellow card offenses, and generally giving the USA no traction at all at the set piece.

Not surprisingly, we at Goff Rugby Report asked USA Head Coach John Mitchell about the scrum, as Italy managed to build attacks in previous games based on scrum reputation (and thus penalties) more than anything else.

“I think we scrummaged well against Argentina [in the ARC] but I felt we weren’t compliant enough, and that was costly,” said Mitchell, who was talking about penalties. He wants to avoid scrum penalties and feels in part that they can be a momentum-killer. Certainly USA fans have seen that. The key, said the coach, is in part having good conditioning and depth in the tight five. 

“It’s not just about your first-half scrum, it’s about your second-half scrum,” he said. “It’s an area of strength and solidarity of Italy. It’s going to be a key contest on the weekend. They got lots of scrums last week because of Argentina getting quite a high error rate.”

Another key aspect of the game will be getting points when they are available. In test match rugby, a dependable goalkicker is hugely important.

“AJ MacGinty is probably our #1 kicker, but we’ve got [James] Bird, who obviously kicked in the ARC, and Will Holder can kick some goals, too,” said Mitchell. “But we’ve got a success rate [percentage] in the 70s, and we need to be in the 80s if we want to compete with Tier I nations. It’s a form of building pressure on the opposition.”

Mitchell said you can get into a period in a game of getting kickable penalties, and a good, dependable kicker will make those pay off. Back-to-back-to-back penalties can eat up points, and put the opposition under pressure.

But, he added, you’ve got to have players who can make those opportunities pay off.

As for Italy, what the Eagles can expect is a very good rugby team full of competent professionals, a team that can front up physically.

“We’ll face an Italian side under new management and with a lot of enthusiasm,” said Mitchell. “They looked a lot more organized and a lot more resilient in their last performance. They clearly have got good intent and a mind-set around attacking. I thought they were very aggressive in their defensive collisions, as well. It’ll be a very physical match.”

See full USA lineup here. See full Italy lineup here.

Highlights of Italy v Argentina (if you don't see the video, please refresh the page).