These entertaining games took place at Kirkham Oval, in the beautiful country (yet rapidly-growing) town of Camden.
While Kirkham Oval has a rich history, it also has the accolade of being the place where it all began for Italian rugby league superstar and current best player of the National Rugby League (NRL), James Tedesco.
Before the action on the field got underway, there were plenty of bodies in motion off of it!
Both the Italian and Maltese support staff arrived at the ground early in the morning to prepare for what would turn out to be a highly-memorable day.
While the weather looked dull and grey, coupled with some whistling winds and the occasional period of rain, the teams that took to the field proved to be the polar opposite; they were bright and shone throughout.
They played with the passion and competitive spirit that should accompany the jersey they have been chosen to wear with pride.
Given the location, and seeing the locals turn out in droves, it felt like one of those good old days at Leichhardt or Henson Park.
Both the setting and teams on display generated that vibe of pure rugby league at its finest and reminded me of why I love the sport.
The day kicked off with the U16s Heritage Italy (FIRLA) taking on the fiery Maltese.
Although this was the youngest of the age groups on the day, the level of desire and style of play did not reflect their tender years.
In a hotly-contested first half, the only thing to separate these young warriors was a conversion, which came from a try that was scored on the stroke of half-time by the Azzurri! 6-4!
The arm-wrestle continued into the second half, as Malta sought to gain the ascendency, which they did temporarily to their credit, however the FIRLA boys finished strong to secure a hard-fought 14-8 victory.
It was a great game all round by these youngsters who did their culture, family, friends and themselves proud.
I’m looking forward to following their growth and development over the next few years.
Congratulations to coach Joe Inzitari and his staff, along with his players who demonstrated great resilience in defence, and belief in attack, to earn a tough win against an inspired Maltese outfit.
Match Highlight? The flying try in the corner that ultimately proved to be the winner! Bravo!
On to the U18s.
Rather than a battle of the Mediterranean, this was a clash of two continents: Africa and Europe to be precise.
Similar to the first game, there was plenty of “feeling” in it as well as amazing athleticism on display.
The momentum of the first half swung back and forth with both teams posting a couple of “meat pies” on the board to head into the sheds at the break 12-12.
Drawing another parallel with the earlier game, the half finished with a brilliant try to FIRLA right before the interval.
Although the temperature continued to drop, the action on the field heated up as both teams found more spaces in the defensive line, leading to some great runs and a couple of fine solo tries by both teams.
In a similar vein to the U16s, this game was neck-and-neck.
In the end, the young Italo-Australians in blue managed to capitalise on some good defensive pressure to force a mistake and outscore their opponents 22-18.
It was another high-octane clash that had very little separating the two teams.
Well done coach Frank Tripodina, coaching staff and the team on your solid victory against a spirited Africa.
Match Highlight? The recovery defence from the Azzurri late in the second-half when the Africans made a fantastic length of the field break.
Finally we move onto the main event, the International Test Match between Italy and Malta.
The last time these Mediterranean rivals locked horns was back in October 2017, when it ended in a memorable 24-all draw.
Without the NRL and overseas contingent, the “new-age” Azzurri team, which included five debutants and led by new captain, Joey Tramontana, playing his first game in 14 months, were given an opportunity to build some chemistry as they prepared for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Malta also fielded a strong line-up, which included the experienced Wigan Warriors (English Super League) star half Jarrod Sammut, and led by Tramontana’s club team mate Tyler Cassel.
From the outset, Malta turned up with purpose and intent, applying early pressure in defence that immediately resulted in a quick try in the corner.
Building on this early momentum, Malta added another try soon after to extend their lead to 10-0.
To Italy’s credit, they begun to turn the tide and gain some ascendency in terms of field position, however they were unable to fully convert on this swing.
The teams went into the sheds 10-2 at the break.
Italy then came firing out of the blocks at the start of the second stanza through some purposeful running up the middle and generating great second phase play.
The Azzurri shot out to a deserved 14-10 lead through two fantastic tries.
As the half wore on, some unfortunate errors from the boys in blue resulted in a simple try for Malta which Sammut expertly converted from the sideline to give them a 16-14 lead.
With the game in the balance, Italy pushed hard to force the issue and put themselves in a good position to regain the lead, however they weren’t able to crack a resolute Maltese defence.
Then, with five minutes remaining, and against the run of the play, Malta scored again.
This time it was through a clever short grubber on a reverse angle that deceived the defence (although the Azzurri fans and bench were adamant the try-scorer was standing in front of the kicker and therefore offside!).
Notwithstanding the controversial circumstances, full credit goes to Malta for converting their strong defence into a well-worked try, to make the score 22-14.
Italy were now scrambling against the clock in an attempt to pull off a miracle.
Although they persisted, in the end Italy were forced to settle for an exciting try on the buzzer to reduce the margin to 23-20.
Congratulations to Malta on a great game of rugby league and a gutsy victory.
Although it wasn’t the result we were hoping for or expected, to try and paraphrase what a wise man (coach Leo Epifania) once said: “Sometimes short-term set-backs can act as the turning point for future success.”
As a perennial optimist, and given Leo’s vast rugby league experience as a player and coach (including working with the iconic Tim Sheens at Wests Tigers), I’m sure he’s right!
Match Highlight? Watching Italy never give in and be rewarded with scoring a superb try on the last play of the game.
It’s a shame there wasn’t the “last try wins” rule!
White the International Test Match result belongs to the White and Red of Malta, overall the success of the day I believe resides with the Azzurri Blue.
Hence the title “Azzurri, white and red”!
Holistically speaking, the real winners were:
1) the International and Heritage Rugby League;
2) the Italian and Maltese communities; and
3) The Camden region.
Judging by the strong crowd and feedback received, and building on from the 2017 experience, this writer suspects that days like this will become a regular event and will continue to grow!
A special mention to the Mayor of Camden Council, Theresa Fedeli (of Italian heritage) for attending the International Test Match and assisting with the post-game presentation.
The collaboration between, and support of, Camden Council and Camden Rams Junior Rugby League Football Club was vital in ensuring the success of the day.
Additionally, the sponsors of both federations are sincerely appreciated for helping shape a wonderful day.
Finally, the strong crowd that braved the bitter winds and wet weather are the reason why the players deliver the spectacle they do, and why the faceless volunteers work tirelessly in the background to organise such events... Grazie mille!
I am looking forward to seeing the National Italian and Heritage Italian teams do it all again on Saturday, October 19, in Windsor against the emerging Philippines!
Forza Italia! Forza Rugby League! Forza Italia Rugby League!