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Italy Significantly Better Than USA in WXV2

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Italy Significantly Better Than USA in WXV2

Paige Stathopoulos makes a tackle and Catie Benson helps. Photo Johan Rynners for World Rugby via Getty Images.

The USA has ended the WXV 1-2 after a 30-8 loss to Italy in the final game.

That game had its own drama as Italy needed to win by 25 or more to win the WXV 2 trophy. They were held out by some dogged defense by the Eagles, allowing Scotland to celebrate their tournament victory.

For the USA, this was a case of chickens coming home to roost. Their kicking game was very poor and it put them on the back foot, or killed their territorial position, repeatedly.

It was a very windy day with a swirling wind in the high 20s (MPH) that largely favored the USA in the first half. 

The USA started off on the front foot with solid forward carries fed by scrumhalf Taina Tukuafu. But that initial territorial advantage didn’t offer try-scoring opportunities. A well-executed maul stop by the USA set them up to attack again and when Italy were penalized for illegally playing the scrumhalf off a ruck, flyhalf Gabby Cantorna slotted the goal to get her past 50 test match points.

But Italy found their feet after that and replied with a superbly executed try, keeping the ball alive and forcing the USA defense to scramble. 

That try, however, came from USA mistakes. Center Katana Howard, serving as the main kicker from hand, couldn’t get the handle on Tafuna’s pass. She rescued it brilliantly, but when they set up for another kick, Howard took too long handling a low pass and was blocked. This all put the USA under pressure and when the Eagles finally did kick clear, they were burned badly.

Down 7-3 the Eagles pressure off the restart and a nice grubber from Howard came off an Italian hand to give the USA a lineout. But they failed to win that lineout, and Italy was off and running. Even when they lost the ball they were quick and pouncing on Tafuna when she was slow to make a decision forced a penalty and, ultimately, a try out wide for Italy. Italy had enjoyed 80% of possession and had made enough of it count.

Kicking Themselves

That’s how the first half ended, and the USA, going against the wind, were in trouble. Not that their kicking was anything to write home about with the wind at their backs. Interim Head Coach Milton Haig had said before the tournament that the USA kicking from hand was poor, and it was. They couldn’t get distance and they couldn’t find touch consistently. They couldn’t quickly launch a kick (catch, step, boot) and as a result getting out of their own 22 was a chore.

In the second half, this was spelled out when Tess Feury’s kickoff went out on the full. Feury, a hugely respected player with much bravery and skill, seemed forced into a kicking role for which she is not ready—her kicking style is not designed to get distance and that started to show.

Italy launched off the midfield scrum and once again created overlaps to score.

The Eagles responded immediately. Former Dartmouth star Kristin Bitter took over the kickoff duties and launched a good one that allowed the USA chased to exert pressure. They countered off a clearance kick and a lovely burst through the middle by flanker Feed Tafuna set everything in motion. Tafuna offloaded well to Howard, who fed flanker Tahlia Brody for a try under the posts. In the swirling wind, Bitter’s conversion hit the post, and it was 17-8.

The Italians responded well, running their attack through their superb scrumhalf Sofia Stefan, and the USA began to commit too many players to making those tackles. Good hands down the short side and Italy was in for their fourth.

A Bit of Bad Luck

The Eagles hit a bit of bad luck on the next try. The whole sequence began when the USA had two penalties in the Italian zone. Feury missed touch on one, but made it on the other. However, after the lineout the Eagles lost the ball. Italy kicked and Clapp launched a counter only to hurt herself in some way and lose the ball. As she lay on the ground, Italy raced to midfield, and then attacked back the other way. A loose ball seemed to give the USA a chance and Feury fly-hacked it back to midfield. She and Henrich chased, but they bunched up a little, allowing No. 8 Elisa Giordano to get around them and steamroll hooker Kathryn Treder before scoring. 

It was good to see Clapp get back on her feet, but the damage had been done when she was out of the play.

Italy added a penalty after that, but passed up a long-range attempt late in the game that might have won the tournament for them.

The Eagles ended the match with several chances to put an attack together. But mistakes, plagued them. Silly offloads out of the tackle into a teammate’s face, straight-up dropped balls, and way, way too many holding-on penalties killed any momentum the USA could have produced.

The USA did well to battle it out with their forwards, but running it straight against the Italians proved less fruitful. They can hold their heads up high in terms of their effort level and certainly they tested new combinations and gave some vital game time to new individuals. But the question remains around successful kicking out of hand as well as getting width under pressure on attack. 

There remain serious questions about who is the right player at flyhalf, and that has been a question for three years now.

Tries: Brody
Pens: Cantorna

Italy 30
Tries: Duca, Minuzzi, Stefan, D'Inca, Giordano
Convs: Sillari
Pens: Sillari

First-Half Stats (USA Blue, Italy Red):

Second-Half Stats (USA Blue, Italy Red):

Full Game Stats (USA Blue, Italy Red): 

Note how much more Italy ran the ball through the flyhalf, and how they dominated attack out wide. In addition, the poor kicking from the USA is illustrated here, when they were only 50% in being successful in kicking from the hand.

Thank you to Hanno van Vuuren for stats analysis and in-game analysis used in this article.