SAN JOSE, Calif. - The Men's Eagles came within a point of their first defeat of a Tier One nation Saturday at Avaya Stadium, nearly overcoming Italy in the final minutes of a 24-20 final.
Three Eagles made their debuts in the first match of the team's Summer Series, with Tony Lamborn scoring a try in his first appearance in a U.S. shirt. Head Coach John Mitchell was content with the effort from his side knowing a win was well within its grasp from the first minute to the last.
"I thought we played excellent test-match rugby and stayed on task in the defensive end," the head coach said in his fifth test match in charge. "That was the plan. We stayed in the contest a long time.
"It was a good performance even though it wasn't a winning performance. The guys presented themselves the opportunity to win the test match, which is really pleasing."
The U.S. will get right back to it, traveling to Sacramento before the end of the weekend for a June 25 match at Bonney Field against Russia, which suffered a heavy defeat to Canada earlier in the day.
The early scare of the match did not come on the scoreboard, but in the form of a collision between wingers. Taku Ngwenya chased a kick into Italy's half and attempted to time his run to make an impactful tackle on Leonardo Sarto at the Italy 10. The Italian saw the red flags, and took one step to force an awkward collision from which neither winger regained his feet in a timely manner. Both were substituted from the match in just the fifth minute, with Mike Te'o filling Ngwenya's place and Giovanbattista Venditti coming on for Italy.
The first half saw short bursts of attacking rugby, with penalties and a few handling errors bringing play to a halt. Greg Peterson kept Italy from the try zone in the sixth minute by ripping the ball out of a maul, and a successive lineout for the visitors came to nothing with a forward pass.
A 12th-minute penalty against Italy in a scrum at its own 10 gave Clever the option to set AJ MacGinty up with the tee, and the fly half posted the first three points of the match with the successful penalty kick.
Te'o's involvement early in the match was foremost on defense, making tackles as a second sweeper, before showing off his feet and speed on the chase. His partners in the final third, Will Holder and vice captain Blaine Scully, were dangerous, as well, with Holder drawing a penalty in a mid-air tackle after Italian fly half Carlo Canna leveled the match at 3-3 in the 16th minute. MacGinty's kick to touch was mis-hit, but Italy kept play moving with a kick away.
Holder broke the line again moments later, and had space to run with teammates on either side of him as he neared the Italian fly half. Canna hit the ball away as the American passed it, and play went on before the referee asked the television match official to review it.
After seeing the additional angles, the referee sent Canna to the bin and awarded a penalty try to the Eagles, which MacGinty converted for a 10-3 lead midway through the first frame.
The home team looked to play the kind of expansive rugby they had been practicing at the Olympic Training Center under attack coach Mike Friday, and sometimes forced a pass to no avail. Lamborn was inserted into the match for Peterson, who received some attention on the play that led up to the penalty try.
It was Italy that struck on the 15-on-14 play with a rolling maul from a lineout within 10 meters of the U.S. try line focusing the home side's energy for hooker Ornel Gega to dot down in the corner. The Eagles held onto the lead at 10-8, but could not extend it before Canna was allowed back on the pitch a minute later.
The sinning was almost a blessing in disguise for the Italians, opting for set pieces rather than three-point kicks with their fly half out of the game. Once he came back on, however, Italy took advantage to put another three points on the scoreboard just ahead of the halftime whistle for an 11-10 score line.
On the other side of the half, an Italian attack in front of the posts was converted into three more points via a Canna drop kick. The Eagles rebuked the larger deficit with shifty runs from MacGinty and Holder in the attacking third, and MacGinty drew the Eagles closer at 14-13 after Italy was called for offside in front of the posts.
Italy found itself in the try zone in the 52nd minute when Venditti crossed over in the corner, but he was unable to reach the ground with the ball, taken out by an Eagle. The substitute attempted a pass inside, where prop Chris Baumann was alert to the danger to make the intercept and fight off a defender in-goal. Initially a 22-meter drop for the U.S., the match official awarded a five-meter put-in for Italy.
The visitors kicked for touch when the Eagles were penalized in the set piece, and Cam Dolan was sent to the bin with a yellow card for dangerous play in the ensuing lineout. With the man advantage and territory to burn, Italy padded its lead with a second try from its hooker, again coming out of a maul to cross the line. Canna converted for a 21-13 lead.
The Eagles turned on the pressure down by eight points, and played the kind of rugby necessary to stay in the game as tired legs reigned. When the attack was not gaining ground, Augspurger, Holder, or MacGinty made sure to put the ball in the air, and a set defensive line kept Italy from threatening more points.
Lamborn stole the ball cleanly from the breakdown in advantageous territory after Dolan returned, and the Eagles broke away through the No. 8, Thretton Palamo, and Scully. The attack turned into a scrum, and Augspurger led the attack one way before switching back towards the left-hand touch line, where MacGinty dummied a pass to create a gap. As he was taken to the ground he found Te'o, whose quick hands in the face of contact allowed Lamborn to go over on the wing.
The try and rather tough conversion brought the score to 21-20 with 10 minutes to play, and the Eagles put their heads down to win the ball back from the restart. MacGinty made a stand-up tackle behind the U.S. 10 and the Eagles converged to draw a penalty, but the lineout inside Italy's half was lost forward.
Italy played the long game by drawing time off of the clock with slow ball in the breakdown, and Augspurger timed his run to block a kick in front of the posts just right. The scrum half jumped to get a hand to the attempted clearance, and the Eagles jumped all over the ball as it squirted within 10 meters of the line.
The referee's whistle blew, and heads went up to see which arm was raised. The call went against the home team, which would have had a shot at three points from the infraction, and Italy retained possession in the final minutes before one last penalty kick from Canna brought the final score to 24-20.
Post-match, Mitchell highlighted the positives of the encounter with a team that finished 2-2 at Rugby World Cup 2015, including the fitness levels of players that lasted 80 minutes. In fact, three substitutes were left on the bench as the majority of the starting XV kept Italy from a late second-half score. He also pointed to the pitfalls of international competition, knowing split-second judgments can turn the tide of a test.
"You can throw the ball willy-nilly, and that's the stuff against Tier One nations that can hurt you, so we looked at other ways to apply pressure," the head coach said. "We had to deal with a yellow card late, as well, and there were some pretty tough decisions by the referee in the last 10 minutes, especially there in front of the posts.
"This will serve us well. It's a good base. We're here for winning performances; this is our level. We have to take belief in this that we can actually win these test matches, and that's really where we can be in the world if we put our minds to it.
"This is just the start, so now we have to recover well and get back into our model next week to stick to what we do."
The Eagles take on Russia in their final match of the summer Saturday, June 25, at Bonney Field. The capital of California has hosted the Eagles in each of the past two seasons, and the home team has come away with wins against Canada and Japan. Tickets are still available for the match, with the live broadcast available on The Rugby Channel from 7 p.m. PT.
Men's Eagles | v. Italy
1. Titi Lamositele (MacLellan @ 75')
2. James Hilterbrand (Taufete'e @ 53')
3. Chris Baumann (Tarr @ 68')
4. Nate Brakeley
5. Greg Peterson (Lamborn @ 21')
6. Andrew Durutalo
7. Todd Clever (C)
8. Cam Dolan
9. Nate Augspurger
10. AJ MacGinty
11. Blaine Scully
12. Shalom Suniula
13. Thretton Palamo
14. Taku Ngwenya (Te'o @ 5')
15. Will Holder
Italy | v. USA
1. Andrea Lovotti
2. Ornel Gega
3. Lorenzo Cittadini
4. Quintin Geldenhuys
5. Marco Fuser
6. Maxime Mbanda
7. Simone Favaro
8. Andries Van Schalkwyk
9. Edoardo Gori (C)
10. Carlo Canna
11. David Odiete
12. Tommaso Castello
13. Michele Campagnaro
14. Leonardo Sarto
15. Luke McLean
Italy | Reserves
16. Oliviero Fabiani
17. Sami Panico
18. Pietro Ceccarelli
19. Valerio Bernabo
20. Sebastian Negri
21. Guglielmo Palazzani
22. Tommaso Allan
23. Giovanbattista Venditti
Men's Eagles | 20
Tries: Penalty try, Lamborn
Conversions: MacGinty (2)
Penalties: MacGinty (2)
Italy | 24
Tries: Gega (2)
Penalties: Canna (3)
Drop Goals: Canna