Italy and Scotland remain neck and neck at the top of the WXV 2 2023 standings following two enthralling matches at Athlone Sports Stadium on Friday.
The Azzure lead the way on points difference thanks to their bonus-point 36-18 victory against hosts South Africa, who were reduced to 13 players during the second half in Cape Town.
Scotland had earlier made a lightning start against USA, scoring three tries in the opening 20 minutes en route to a bonus-point win of their own, Chloe Rollie’s second-half score helping to secure a 24-14 triumph.
Round two comes to its conclusion on Saturday when Japan take on Samoa (kick-off 16:00 local time, GMT+2), with both sides looking for their first win of the tournament.
Italy 36-18 South Africa
The Italians got off to the best possible start, taking the lead in the opening five minutes when full-back Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi showed a terrific turn of pace to break down the left wing and cross for the opening try.
Despite the early set-back, South Africa hit back almost straight away with strong forward phase play propelling them towards the line before captain Babalwa Latsha crashed over, with Libbie Janse van Rensburg adding the conversion to level the scores inside 10 minutes.
The game's free-flowing nature continued with the Italians adding a quick-fire second as Aura Muzzo went over in the corner after a looping miss pass from Beatrice Rigoni. Beatrice Capomaggi added a second conversion.
With South Africa down to 14 players, after Veroeshka Grain saw yellow for a high tackle, the tournament hosts' scramble defence struggled to stop the Italians' offload game and they were soon over for their third try through Alissa Ranuccini.
Janse van Rensburg narrowed the gap with a penalty for the Springbok Women but this was cancelled out by Capomaggi in what proved to be the half's final points as the game headed into the break with the Azzurre leading 22-10.
South Africa began the second half with a strong passage of possession and Janse van Rensburg decided to take advantage of the field position by knocking over a second penalty.
However, Springbok Women number eight Aseza Hele was sent off for a head-on-head collision with Italy’s Veronica Madia soon afterwards. That opened the game up and Italy instantly pounced adding their fourth try of the game through hooker Vittoria Vecchini.
Even down to 14, South Africa continued to push the Italian defence and they were rewarded when Byhandre Dolf scored their second try in the corner following a long passage of composed phase play.
Early injuries came back to haunt South Africa, though, and when replacement hooker Luchell Hanekom had to leave the field, the game was reduced to uncontested scrums and the Springbok Women were left with 13 players for the final 15 minutes.
Despite being down to 13, South Africa played some of their best rugby of the game but Alyssa D’Incà secured the game for the Italians with their fifth try when she read an intercept perfectly to race in to score. Capomaggi once again added the extras to round off a strong Italian win.
USA 14-24 Scotland
USA, with the wind into their faces, had a number of early phases of possession, but Scotland defended well and it was still scoreless after 10 minutes.
With their first attack soon after Scotland scored the opening try. Outside-centre Emma Orr’s good break set up left winger Francesca McGhie who finished well after gliding past full-back Bulou Mataitoga. Fly-half Helen Nelson’s conversion hit the post and it was 5-0.
In the 16th minute, after a number of forward drives, second-row Emma Wassell went over for Scotland’s second try from short range. Nelson converted and it was 12-0.
It got better for Scotland in the 20th minute when blindside flanker Rachel McLachlan’s pass set up Rhona Lloyd and the right winger did the rest to score try number three. Nelson's conversion again hit the upright to leave the score at 17-0.
Scotland scrum-half Mairi McDonald was well held up by her opposite number Carly Waters over the try line six minutes later.
Freda Tafuna, the USA blindside flanker, thought she had scored a try after 33 minutes following a kick charge down by second-row Hallie Taufoou, but referee Clara Munarini spotted a knock-on after conferring with the TMO.
That opportunity had given USA some confidence and they were carrying and tipping on well before earning a penalty near the Scotland try-line.
From the resultant lineout they managed to set things up for tight-head prop Charli Jacoby to go over. Fly-half Gabriella Cantorna converted and it was 17-7 at half-time.
USA started where they left off in the second half, replacement Keia Mae Sagapolu carrying well, but after 50 minutes the score was still the same.
Captain Kate Zackary and right winger Tess Feury both had glimpses of space out wide for USA before the hour mark while Scotland put some phases together before a knock-on and it was a 10-point game heading into the last 20 minutes.
Just after the hour mark Scotland scored a crucial fourth bonus-point try. It came through full-back Chloe Rollie and replacement Meryl Smith converted to make it 24-7.
Feury so nearly scored a try for USA straight afterwards and then replacement hooker Paige Stathopoulos did go over. Feury converted and it was 24-14.
Rollie so nearly got her second try with eight minutes to play, but a great last gasp tackle from USA replacement Taina Tukuafu kept her out.
The Scots’ number eight Evie Gallagher was named the Mastercard player of the match.