Italy got their end-of-year campaign off to an impressive start when they claimed a hard-fought 19-10 win over Fiji in Catania on Saturday.
The result is a significant one for the Azzurri as it is their first victory of the 2017 and ends a nine-match losing streak which stretches back to their 19-17 loss to Tonga in Padova last November.
There was plenty of hype about this match in its build-up as both teams went into the fixture employing expansive game-plans, but although there was plenty of enterprising play during the first half, the Azzurri played more with their forwards after half-time and this helped them to secure the result.
Italy took an early lead courtesy of a Carlo Canna penalty in the fifth minute after Fiji’s backs were blown up for offside play close to their try-line.
The Azzurri held the upper-hand for the next 15 minutes but although they set up several attacks inside Fiji’s half, they had no reward as they were met by a solid defensive effort from the Pacific isladers.
And in the 21st minute, the visitors drew level via a Ben Volavola penalty after Canna infringed at a ruck. The Azzurri continued to attack and five minutes later, Simone Ferrari ran onto a Marcello Violi pass and barged over for the opening try.
Fiji thought they had their first try in the 35th minute when Josua Tuisova went over the try-line after he charged down an attempted clearance kick from Jayden Hayward deep inside Italy’s 22.
The try was not awarded, however, as television replays showed that Tuisova lost control of the ball while crossing the whitewash.
That setback did not prove too costly though as on the stroke of half-time, Leone Nakarawa burst through a tackle from Sergio Parisse, just outside Italy’s 22, and the Fijian lock showed a superb turn of speed to outpace the cover defence before dotting down next to the uprights.
Volavola added the extras which meant the sides were deadlocked at 10-10 at the interval.
The Azzurri were fastest out of the blocks after the break when, from a Fijian lineout on their five-mete line, Canna, who was standing in the scrum-half position, came around at the set-piece and ripped the ball from Apisalome Ratuniyarawa’s grasp before dotting down.
Like Tuisova’s effort earlier, referee John Lacey checked with his TMO, Neil Paterson, who ruled correctly that Canna came from an offside position.
But despite that ruling, Italy got stronger as the match progressed while Fiji faded badly. Two Canna penalties in the 52nd and 58th minutes, gave the hosts a six-point cushion which meant the visitors had to take more risks in the final quarter.
But things went from bad to worse when Volavola was sent to the sin bin for a cynical foul at a ruck in the 65th minute. That meant the visitors were under the cosh for the rest of the match and Italy sealed their win courtesy of a penalty from debutant Ian McKinley, two minutes before full-time.
Pens: Canna 3, McKinley
Yellow Card: Volavola