The crowd erupted!
Those in attendance at the iconic Italo-Australian Club Marconi, located in Sydney’s Bossley Park, had just witnessed a fantastic spectacle between two highly passionate teams, which was capped off in the most dramatic fashion.
Jubilation on one bench, heartbreak on the other.
Rugby League, “the greatest game of all”.
Following the hard-fought victory against surprise packets South Africa Rhinos a fortnight ago, the Federazione Italiana Rugby League (FIRL) Azzurri were looking to end 2018 on a high with back-to-back wins as they approach the 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) qualifying campaign.
Lacking the majority of their 2017 RLWC stars (although they had stars Joey Tramontana and Mason Cerrutto there for inspiration), this game was a chance for the up-and-comers to “carpe diem” (seize the day) and stake their claim for a spot in the squad that is contesting for a third consecutive world cup campaign.
On the other side, Niue had just finished runners up in the Emerging Nations tournament, and as a result, their stocks were at an all-time high!
Italy started off the game positively with some strong carries which were able to generate good go-forward and second phase play to keep the ball alive, which forced the bigger Niuean forwards into more defensive work.
This early field position dominance resulted in the game’s first try in the 7th minute as backrower Gioele Celerino collected a deft-grubber from five-eight Daniel Petralia to score next to the posts.
Josh Mantellato made no mistake and converted four into six.
A well-executed try by the Italians!
The next period of play saw Niue lift their intensity both with and without the ball.
Their large, skilful forwards started to win back the arm-wrestle with their efforts being rewarded in the 12th minute via a fine solo try by fullback Latrell Schmaukel.
Niue continued to work over the Italians in the ruck and gaining some good post-contact metres.
Compounding this, Italy made a couple of simple errors to invite Niuean pressure in their half.
With that, Niue fully capitalised on this gift from the Azzuri through a superb bullet-pass to winger Justice Utatao to crash over in the corner.
Niue took the lead 12-6 with 17 minutes played!
Niue continued to find easy metres and space on the edges of the Italian defence.
With the Azzurri feeling the heat following constant Niuean pressure, Niue barged their way over for their third unanswered try to give them a 12-point lead.
18-6 with the clock showing 17 minutes left in the first half.
With their backs against the wall, it was crucial that Italy were the next team to find the white stripe.
And that they did!
Approaching the half-hour mark, Santi tucked the ball under the arm and muscled his way over the line to cut the lead down to six following Mantellato’s conversion.
With Italy keeping a hold of the ball and completing some positive sets following their try, and applying some strong defensive pressure, an equalising try was forthcoming to the Azzurri as debutant Lachlan Scarpelli scored a fine try.
Mantellato again was composed to convert and level the scores 18-18 in the 35th minute.
However, the half took one final turn as Italy again turned over possession cheaply (through a one-on-one strip) which allowed Niue a final opportunity to attack the Azzurri line.
Italy defended their goal-line bravely but on the last play of the half, Niue five-eight Zebastian Luisi wrestled his way over to give Niue a four-point lead heading into the sheds.
An entertaining and high-scoring first half!
Italy came firing out of the blocks in the second half with some enthusiastic defence which allowed them to set up camp deep in Niue territory.
The Azzurri threw lots of traffic at the Niue defence but to their credit, and after a sustained period of repelling a determined Italian attack, they held firm!
Some brilliant defending by Niue, but would the effort take its toll as the game wore on?
Time would tell.
With both teams maintaining their defensive resilience, a key moment arrived in the 53rd minute as the Italians failed to find touch following a much-needed penalty.
Niue utilised this fortuitous opportunity to establish some valuable field position in the Azzurri half and create some attacking momentum.
In the 56th minute, they were able to convert this good field position into points as half-back Eddie Paea expertly found the white stripe to give Niue a 10-point lead (28-18)!
This appeared to put the wind into the Niuean sails as they lifted a gear and started to assert their dominance over a fragile Italian defence.
This culminated in a nicely worked try on the edges to fullback Latrell who bagged his second for the game.
Although unable to convert the try, Niue took a commanding 14-point with 19 minutes remaining!
Down but not out, Italy knew that they needed to dig deep and get back to what was working well in the first half: creating offloads and using their speedsters to run hard through the middle to try and catch their forwards out of their defensive structures.
This tactic worked to a tee as in the 66th minute half-back Brock Pelligra spotted a gap in the Niue defence to split them like a gazelle and find the indefatigable Vinnie Ripepi on his inside to score a great Italian try!
A momentum changer!
For the next five minutes Italy were starting to regain control of the match and looking like a team still in it.
This included some great, hard running from the outside backs led expertly by debutant Matthew Tedesco (older brother of James) who had been enormous throughout, with his hard work laying the platform for others to follow.
In the 71st minute, an individual piece of brilliance from livewire fullback Samuel Dolores (who had looked dangerous throughout) saw him somehow manage to wrestle his way over against multiple (and bigger) defenders, to force the ball on the line to score a morale-boosting and memorable try for the Azzurri!
Mantellato continued his perfect streak for the day and helped reduce the deficit to two points!
Game was well and truly on!
In a frantic final five minutes, Niue searched and pressed for the knockout blow, but some inspired defending from the Azzurri on their line repelled their efforts and allowed them a glimmer of hope!
As the remaining few minutes ticked down, it seemed a Niuean victory was all but sealed, but with 90 seconds remaining, the Italian defence rushed up to force an error on the half-way line to give the Azzurri one last chance to cap off a dramatic comeback!
What would the Italians come up with?
Did they have one final moment of magic?
As it turned out, they did!
In what was the last play of the game, a strong charge by captain “Superman” Santi and good footwork at the line attracted the attention of a few defenders, which allowed Santi to get a clever offload to the ever-present Ripepi, who danced and weaved between defenders before tossing up a final pass to a rampaging Santi to crash over and send Italian fans into absolute pandemonium!
Mantellato maintained his 100 per cent record to give Italy a heart-stopping 36-32 win over a brave Niue.
Euphoric scenes from the players and Italian supporters and equally deafening silence from Niue faithfuls.
The contrasting emotions on display encapsulated the notion that rugby league is the ultimate soap opera!
Brilliant comeback by the Italians, but equally a terrific performance by rising stars Niue.
They are small in terms of population, mighty in character and courage.
I am looking forward to tracking their progress in the years to come.
In the aftermath, Niuean back-rower Wes Lolo reflected: “We’re disappointed with the result, but it was a top quality game.
“Their captain did a great job; his speed and agility were hard to handle.
“I’m proud of our boys, especially our middle men who were really positive for us.
“We also executed on the edge and scored some good tries, but we also made some crucial errors which cost us, as Italy were good enough to capitalise.
“Credit to them for their win.”
Italian coach Leo Epifania agreed that it was a tough match but was proud of his team’s character.
“From my perspective I was comfortable with the game plan we had prepared, however at times we were unable to properly execute it as we would’ve liked,” he said.
“Also, we could have defended better in certain instances, although I was pleased with how, despite not playing our best, we still managed to find a way, find the spirit, to grind our way to score a match-winning try against an enthusiastic Niuean side.”
Overall it was a terrific game of rugby league between two passionate and skilful sides, who provided those in attendance a real showcase for the ages!
Well done to all 34 warriors on a memorable battle!
Finally, a special congratulations to FIRL debutants Luke Hodge, Lachlan Scarpelli and Matthew Tedesco!
Here’s hoping for many more!
Forza Azzurri! Forza Italia! Forza Rugby League!