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With the US v Italy match coming up on Saturday, it seems worth taking a look at what the Eagles will be up against. It was Conor O'Shea's first match in charge of Italy, so things were bound to be a bit different. Compared to much of the latest Six Nations, they looked quite sharp in attack, and Italy had a real chance for the upset of Argentina last weekend before ultimately falling 30-24.
We don't know how much of Italy's game plan against Argentina will transfer into this weekend's match against the US, but we can take a look at some of what happened in Sante Fe. The lineout went reasonably well for the Italians, with Dries van Schalkwyk a prominent target. Italy also scrummaged well. In open play, Luke McLean and Michele Campagnaro were the key figures in attack.
The match started well for Italy, as they turned the ball over from the opening kick off. From there, they worked the ball to the center of the field. Italy won the ball close to the near touchline. Two carries by forwards moved the ball to the middle of the field. Below, Edoardo Gori is making the second pass to Lorenzo Cittadini. Working toward and then attacking from a mid-field ruck was something Italy did throughout the match.
From that position, Italy loaded up the right side with both centers, fullback, and wing. Luke McLean, fullback, is at first receiver and passed to Michele Campagnaro. Campagnaro carried well, but did not break the line.
When I put this next picture into the post, my first thought was, "Oh, shoot. I already put that one in." But no! This is the same pattern only a few moments later. Now it is Carlo Canna, flyhalf, at first receiver with both centers and McLean to his right.
Campagnaro again carried the ball to the line, this time offloading to McLean. In this opening passage, Argentina tackled well, and Italy struggled to make much ground. The attack was cut short when Canna attempted a drop goal.
Italy also looked to this same shape when kicked-to. Below is the first ruck following an Argentina kick. Immediately, Italy loaded up on the right. Nothing came from this as Canna chips ahead and gave possession back to Argentina.
Several minutes later, Italy won a lineout, though sloppily. Two picks-and-go moved the ball to the center of the field. Italy had the forwards in place to carry up again, but did not use them. Instead it was out to Canna who passed on to Campagnaro.
This time around, Campagnaro's offload to McLean was better and McLean almost moved Italy into the Argentina 22. His pass to Tommaso Boni did not go to hand, so it was a scrum for Argentina.
As the half went on, Italy kept to the script. Below is the first ruck following an Argentina kick. McLean fielded the kick, passed it on to Number Eight van Schalkwyk who ran toward the center of the field as he took it up--presumably, as rehearsed. The result was another central ruck. McLean moved into the first receiver position again.
The next image shows that he had Canna and Boni outside him, with David Odiete also near the touchline but not in the image.
Boni ran a straight line and was tackled immediately. However, Italy then had the Argentina 6, 8, 7, 10, 11, and 13 either in or next to the ruck. Following that ruck, Italy hit up with a forward crash that brought the ball back toward the center of the field.
Perhaps because of the number of times Italy had stacked that right side, the Argentina defense was slow to shift to the wide side of the pitch. A good pass from Gori to Robert Barbieri meant trouble for Argentina.
Barbieri ran straight, meaning the defense (in this case, a prop and a lock) couldn't drift, and passed to Simone Favaro just before contact. Favaro was into space, and Italy on the move.
The next breakdown was just outside the 22. Gordi was the ball carrier, so Cittadini needed to play scrum half. Ornel Gega is just behind McLean, though he was there in time to get to the ruck and be on Cittadini's hip. However, McLean, Gega, and Cittadini all worked to get themselves ready to move the ball wide again.
Cittadini and Gega's restraint in not simply crashing the ball up (and waiting for Gori to get back to his feet and take charge again) is rewarded. In the image below, McLean has just passed to Canna, and he had two centers and a wing outside him.
Again, it is Campagnaro who took the ball to the defense and offloaded, this time to Sarto. Sarto stepped inside and scored the try.
A few minutes later, Italy had a lineout about 30 meters out from the Argentina try line. The second phase from the lineout resulted in a ruck in the middle of the field. The image below shows Gori passing from that ruck. Again, there are forwards there to carry "around the corner," but the pass went to Canna.
Canna had Boni immediately outside him, but the pass went to Campagnaro.
Campagnaro took the ball to the line and passed to McLean as he was being hit. When McLean received the ball, he had both wingers in support. That means that, while they weren't all in one image at one time, when Gori passed to Canna, every single Italian back was on the right side of that mid-field ruck.
This sequence moved Italy into the Argentina 22, and they end up winning a penalty. With the penalty kick made, they were down by one point at halftime.
In the second half, there were more examples of Italy using this shape. There were also a couple of attacking moments that showed why O'Shea might want to play from the middle. With more width, the Italian backs seemed less dangerous rather than more dangerous.
The try Italy scored in the second half came from a maul from a lineout. It was an impressive show of power.
Defensively, Italy was slow to re-organize following a line break. Additionally, there were several moments when Italy started a phase with an organized defensive line, but then the central defenders separated from either the narrow defenders or the wide defenders, or both.
Below is an example of opportunity created by Italy's desire to get to the "second line" of attackers quickly in order to stop the ball from getting wide. Here, there are three Argentina forwards marked by three Italian defenders. The ball went to Facundo Isa in that group of three.
Boni, who was Italy's leading tackler with 13, shot up to try to keep Argentina from moving the ball wide. Isa powered forward. As he moved beyond Boni, a hole opened up. Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro saw the hole and headed into the space.
Isa got the offload away to Chaparro, and Italy was under real pressure.
This pressure ends up with another three points for Argentina.
Perhaps it is a bit naive, but I have confidence that the Eagles will be able to find ways to get to the try zone (once, at least). And they have the personnel to cause some problems for Italy at the lineout.
These, though, are the questions that loom large for me at the moment: Will the scrums be competitive? Will the Eagles tackle well?
If yes, the Eagles have a chance to be in the match at the end. If no...it could be another tough match for US fans to watch.