USA Rugby World Cup History Part 4: Eagles vs Italy 1991

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In preparation for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Rugby Rain Man Collective member Ryan Day is providing match reviews and analysis of all the Rugby World Cup games in USA Rugby history.

FT WAYNE, IN – In the four-year run up to the 1991 Rugby World Cup following the inaugural edition, the Eagles had gone 7-12 with best results of wins over Canada and a 3-0 sweep of Japan. Players coming back included Brian Vizard as captain; prop Fred Paoli, who at 37 years of age was joint-oldest player in the competition; Kevin Swords; Kevin Higgins; Gary Hein; and Ray Nelson. The team was elderly though, as seven starters were past 30 with only wing Eric Whitaker younger than 26.

The match was at picturesque and sold out Cross Green, the English club ground of Otley RUFC.  With a seating capacity of 5,000, it was the smallest capacity ground to ever host a Rugby World Cup match.

Eagle center Mark Williams kicks off. Both teams early are very kick-happy, and it ends up costing the U.S. a few minutes in. Williams takes a pass from center Kevin Higgins and aims to boot downfield. However, Italian center Fabio Gaetaniello charges down the kick, recovers, and passes to the other center Stefano Barba who touches down for the try. Italian fly half Diego Dominguez makes an easy conversion.

Off the ensuing restart, Italy knocks on and the Eagles maul. The Italian captain, flanker Gianni Zanon, does the most blatant penalty ever going to the rear of the maul. However, the penalty kick from Williams is never close. The Eagles get a couple half-chances to threaten but go backwards with the ball and lose possession. Italy displays an expert kicking game for territory putting the Eagles on the back foot but their lineout looks awful. Scrummaging is fairly even, and the ball handling from both sides is poor early on.

Kevin Higgins
Kevin Higgins

Dominguez kicks a beautiful ball from his end behind the American defense and it rolls in to touch close to the try line, but nothing results. Argentine-born Dominguez was capped twice by the Pumas; however, being stuck behind Hugo Porta, he made his debut for Italy in March 1991. He would go on to play fly half for Italy until 2003 and is one of five players in rugby history to score more than 1000 points.

Midway through the half, outside of the try from the charge down it’s been an even game. Italy has been hamstrung by constant penalties against them. Another lineout penalty against Italy puts the Eagles inside the 22. Their best try-scoring opportunity comes as the ball goes wide and they set up a switch from Williams to wing Gary Hein, but Hein knocks on.

Eagles do some sweet backline play off a scrum penalty and force a poor clearance from Italian fullback Luigi Troiani. Off the lineout, lock Kevin Swords makes good ground as Zanon is whistled for not rolling away. Williams scores the Americans’ first points, Italy 6-3.

Dominguez restarts, and it’s caught by Nelson who kicks to touch. From the lineout, Dominguez attempts a drop goal (his second of the game) but it goes wide. After the 22 drop, Dominguez – who must have woken up that morning saying “I’m scoring a drop goal!” – tries another but it gets charged down. The commentary here says that Italy have control of the game, focusing on the territory Italy have enjoyed. While I agree they had an advantage of territory, they had done nothing with it, giving up penalties left and right, and lead only 6-3.

Eagles do an impressive maul off a lineout to get inside the 22, but Eagle fly half Mike de Jong gives away a turnover to Italian lock Favaro. Vizard steals the ball back, and while Zanon throws a haymaker at him in the ruck, the backs with some switches push towards the try line through the unsettled defense. Italy were offsides, and the U.S. go for the quick restart but immediately knock on. If they went for the penalty, it would’ve been a tied game. Italian scrum, and the Eagles get the better of it, but Italy still clear.

1991 RWC Sporting Opinions from OAt the other end of the field is comedy hour. Lineout occurs and a 2nd ball rolls onto the pitch. Irish referee Owen Doyle makes a penalty call in Italy’s favor. An American player picks up the 2nd ball and, after holding it a minute, throws it towards the referee hitting Zanon square in the noggin. Dominguez pours dirt on the ground for a tee and makes the penalty. Italy 9-3 is your halftime score. Nigel Melville, former English captain and current USA Rugby CEO, is on color commentary and he thinks more of Italy, correctly saying their halfbacks look more composed.

The second half starts. On an Italian lineout they win, hooker Tony Flay runs straight for Italian scrum half Ivan Francescato assuming he’s going towards the backs with the ball. Flay overruns, leaving the sideline wide open for Francescato to run down. Francescato jukes Whitaker scoring a great individual try. Dominguez converts.

Some excitement comes when the ball comes out the back of an Italian scrum and Eagle scrum half Barry Daily picks it up. Hein, flanker Rob Farley, and Vizard move the ball downfield well before Italy force them into touch. A penalty is again called on the Italian lineout (a yellow card would be likely in modern times by now). Vizard, on the restart, throws the ball cross field American football style to try and catch the Italian backs napping, but throws behind his man and nothing results. Later, Vizard is down on the field with what appears to be an arm injury. The doctor allows him to come off, and on comes substitute Shawn Lipman.

Italy from the Eagles’ 10-meter line do their crispest passing and phase play all match doing hands to the other side of the field, but de Jong steals before a ruck penalty is called against the U.S. The assistant referee spotted an Italian player throwing a punch and the penalty is overturned. No card, different times.

Downfield, Italy steals the Eagle lineout and Francescato darts, exposing holes in the Eagle defense, but throws a forward pass to Dominguez. On the ensuing scrum, Francescato steals the ball, passes to wing Paolo Vaccari who beats de Jong to score in the corner. Dominguez makes a superb kick and the game has left the Eagles with Italy up 21-3.

Off the kickoff, Italy are whistled for holding on too long. Daily does a quick restart catching Italy napping. Another penalty is called about 10 meters out for not rolling away at the ruck, Daily sets his team and a penalty is called against Italy. Daily goes himself but is bottled up just short of the try line before penalty #4. Daily goes slow and throws to Swords who gets the try. Williams converts, Italy 21-9.

Eagles have a lineout at their end of the field that Italy steals, Dominguez passes to Gaetaniello as Williams gets lost in defense, and Gaetaniello goes under the posts. Dominguez makes it 27-9.

Later, on a 5-meter scrum, the Eagles are whistled for a penalty. (The scrum was pretty solid all game.) The Eagles are whistled for a high tackle on the restart. Dominguez kicks the penalty, makes the kick, and that’s your final score, 30-9. Spectators on the ground then come onto the field to greet the players.

The scoreline flattered Italy, although they were clearly the better team in the 2nd half. You can’t do the mistakes the Eagles did that led to tries and expect to win. I found some Italian penalties cynical, especially before the Swords try, and their lineout was a shambles, but they were deserving winners. The Eagles needed to work on their backline play and advancing past the gainline in phases.

USA – Italy – October 5, 1991 – Cross Green – Otley, England

USA: 1. Chris Lippert, 2. Tony Flay, 3. Fred Paoli, 4. Kevin Swords, 5. Bill Leversee, 6. Brian Vizard (capt.), 7. Rob Farley, 8. Tony Ridnell, 9. Barry Daily, 10. Mike de Jong, 11. Eric Whitaker, 12. Kevin Higgins, 13. Mark Williams, 14. Gary Hein, 15. Ray Nelson, Substitute: 17. Shawn Lipman

Italy: 1. Massimo Cuttitta, 2. Giancarlo Pivetta, 3. Franco Properzi-Curti, 4. Roberto Favaro, 5. Giambattista Croci, 6. Roberto Saetti, 7. Gianni Zanon (capt.), 8. Carlo Checchinato, 9. Ivan Francescato, 10. Diego Dominguez, 11. Marcello Cuttitta, 12. Stefano Barba, 13. Fabio Gaetaniello, 14. Paolo Vaccari, 15. Luigi Troiani

Italy-30 (9)
Tries: Barba, Francescato, Vaccari, Gaetaniello
Conversions: Dominguez (4/4)
Penalties: Dominguez (2/2)
Drop Goals: Dominguez (0/3)

USA-9 (3)
Tries: Swords
Conversions: Williams (1/1)
Penalties: Williams (1/2)

My Man of the Match: Ivan Francescato, Italy

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About Ryan Day 7 Articles
Ryan Day is part of that group of Rugby Know-It-Alls known as the Rugby Rain Man Collective. American-born, he is a mechanical engineer which means his analytical mind doesn't just ask "why?"... he makes it a goal to understand the "causes" of a problem - like why can't American Rugby produce props or fly halves? - and providing solutions. Ryan first watched rugby in the 2007 Rugby World Cup and began playing two years later. Ryan currently resides in Indiana and plays actively for his local club, Fort Wayne, after spending time playing with Raleigh.