By Jason Costigan
A crushing loss to Mediterranean rivals Italy has Malta licking their wounds but Australian-based coach Aaron McDonald doesn’t believe it’ll end up costing the Knights their place in the International Rugby League’s top 20.
Despite missing their stars from last year’s World Cup, the Azzurri cruised to a 38-12 win on neutral turf in Sydney on Saturday – giving Leo Epifania’s charges their first success against the Maltese in 14 years.
Even the presence of Knights legend Jarrod Sammut was not enough to prevent an Italian onslaught in a fixture boasting Test status – something that was not anticipated when Maltese officials rolled out their end-of-season international programme.
In warm conditions, Italy led 14-0 at the break and were never troubled by a Malta side that included four debutantes including 17-year-old winger Lucas Borg from the Shellharbour Stingrays, an amateur club in a major population growth area, about two hours south of Australia’s biggest city.
Also making their first appearances for the Knights were Penrith’s Ryley Smith, out of the Jersey Flegg team for the NRL giants, bench forward Dylan Hodson and Logan Sipple, a winger who plays for The Entrance on the New South Wales Central Coast.
McDonald, who coaches Malta in the southern hemisphere, lamented the defensive workload that dogged his players almost from the opening whistle.
“Italy played very well but we had people making really poor choices. We just did too much defence,” said McDonald, praising the Cassel brothers, Tyler and Kyle, and Blake Phillips especially for tackling themselves almost to a standstill at Lidcombe.
“We trained really well but too many people were trying to do it on their own. Our team is capable of playing much better and we’ll need to in our upcoming Tests. A lot was said about who wasn’t playing for Italy but they did have nine players from their World Cup squad in England. They still had a fair team.”
One of the highlights for Maltese supporters was seeing Borg playing alongside hooker Jordan Xuereb, with their respective fathers, Gavin and Mark, playing Rugby League together as kids in Sydney’s west.
That was more than four decades ago – underlining the inter-generational interest in Rugby League for the close-knit Maltese community Down Under.
“It was lovely for these families. That’s what we’re all about. Families coming together and players wanting to represent the country and that strong Maltese heritage that is dear to their hearts,” McDonald said.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted against Italy but for these families, it was a very special occasion, especially for the debutantes. Let’s hope we can make them even prouder by winning Test matches.
“Malta recently had very good wins over Montenegro and Bulgaria. Of course, this is a very different team and if we can address our issues, we’ll be back. I’m very confident that we’ll keep our place in the top 20.”
The Knights, who cracked the IRL’s top 10 last year but are now ranked 19th, play Chile in their next assignment on October 21.
That is followed by an appointment with the Philippines on October 28.
Both Tests will be played in Sydney with the Maltese women’s team, the Dames, also engaging their Filipino counterparts.
Italy 38 (Damian Nati 3, Jack Piccirilli 2, Anton Iaria, Daniel Atkinson, Matthew Craparotta tries; Daniel Atkinson, Todd Sapienza, Damian Nati goals)
Malta 12 (Connor McDermott, Kyle Cassel tries; Jarrod Sammut 2 goals).
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