WHANGAREI, NZ – The USA opened up pool play at the 2021 World Cup (not a typo) this past weekend with a disappointing 22-10 loss to Italy.
The first ten minutes of the game were emblematic of the style of play that the Eagles hoped to employ throughout the game. They exploded out of the gate, playing aggressive defense and capitalizing on a nice tackle off the opening kickoff by Jordan Matyas to force a turnover inside the 22-meter line of the Azzuri.
They were disruptive at the breakdowns and slowed down Italy’s ball tremendously. At the four minute mark a dominant US scrum earned a penalty and a tap and go, plus a few extra phases off the side, led to second-row Hallie Taofoou crossing the tryline and dotting it down for the score.
Unfortunately, the first ten minutes of the game were also emblematic of the issues the US was having that would eventually lead to the loss. This early try was the last time they would put up points in this half as they were unable to capitalize on their early territorial advantage. The Eagles’ size advantage meant little as the Italians matched their level of physicality, negating weapons like Alev Kelter and Eti Haungatau. There were several instances where two Italian tacklers would combine on a dominant tackle of a US ball carrier, forcing the Eagles to regroup. These instances often resulted in turnovers as the US had trouble getting support to the breakdowns quickly.
The Eagles also failed to utilize their size advantage in the lineout, missing out on several opportunities inside Italy’s ten meter line because they just couldn’t get it going at any point. Italy stole four US lineouts and all four seemed to come at critical moments for the Eagles on offense. The US would end the game 8 for 13 on their own lineout ball, a number that does not do justice to just how much the team struggled in that particular set piece.
“We lost [the game] in the first 30 minutes,” said head coach Rob Cain in his post-match comments. “We were not accurate enough with our possession and territory.”
On defense, if Italy were able to withstand the early barrage of US defenders, they would eventually start breaking the gain line and surging ahead. They were adept at breaking tackles and offloading, which forced the US defense to keep up the chase. The Azzuri would end the match with 29 defenders beaten, eight clean line breaks, and 11 offloads; totals that were all much higher than what the US was able to produce.
The cracks began to show late in the first half as the Italians started to turn the tide. The only thing that ended a few promising sequences for the Azzuri were unforced errors such as a forward pass or a knock-on. Eventually they got enough go forward ball to suck in the US defense and create space on the wing for Aura Muzzo, who they found with a beautiful skip pass that allowed her to win a footrace to the corner flag and score the game-tying try right before the half. Michela Sillari slotted the tough conversion to put the Italians ahead 7-5.
Italy scored again at the start of the second half but missed the conversion, keeping the lead at one score. After a yellow card was handed to Italian star Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi later in the half for a deliberate knock-on, the US capitalized with a score by Jenny Kronish, her first at a World Cup. The score came from a nice assist by Jordan Matyas, who would have received my vote for player of the game if the outcome was reversed.
But the US couldn’t fully take advantage of the advantage granted to them by the yellow card, allowing the Azzuri to score again while still down a player. Muzzo broke three tackles on her way to her second score of the game. Fellow winger Maria Magatti followed that up by taking the ball out of a lineout and running almost 40 meters untouched into the tryzone for the final score of the game.
The Eagles had won each of the previous two matches against the Azzuri, beating them 24-12 in the 2017 World Cup and 34-20 during a friendly in Rome in 2012. The result of this game may be one of the strongest arguments for the professionalization of the women’s national team, as Italy made the switch earlier this year. The result has been surprising wins over a perennial powerhouse in France and now, a flipped scoreline against an Eagles squad that had their number in every previous match. Captain Kate Zackary even went so far as to mention professionalization in her post-match comments.
“It’s a huge thing that Italy was able to go professionalize this year and it shows in their game,” said Zackary. “What it means when you get more minutes, and more games together. It’s something that we are aspiring to do in the next few years. In the meantime, we’ll dust the rust off and come out better next week.”
Zackary was one of the bright spots for the US, as always, flying around the pitch and cleaning up various messes. Jeanine Detiveaux also had a strong showing as did Charli Jacoby, who came off the bench late and provided a bit of a spark. The team must find a way, though, to get Lotte Clapp involved in their next match against Japan. The winger barely touched the ball throughout this match and is one of the team’s better finishers. They will also need to figure out better ways to get Alev Kelter and Eti Haungatau in space, with support around them, to take advantage of their bruising running style.
There is still a chance for the US to make it out of pool play, though, as coach Cain reminded the team afterwards.
“There are three games for a reason and we knew it was going to be a tight group,” he said after the match. Every week is a cup final for us. Now we know where the road goes, we need to win our next two pool games.”
The team will play in a must-win matchup against Japan on Friday night in which they would benefit greatly from also securing a bonus point for trys scored. Then, they will most likely need to beat a Canada side that has had their number in both match-ups so far this year.
“Japan is going to be a really good side, Canada is going to be a really good side and I really do think that we are a good side,” said Zackary. “I believe in that and I think the next couple of weeks are going to be really interesting for this pool.”