New Zealand-born fly-half Kelly Haimona kicked 14 points to inspire Italy to a hard-fought 24-13 rugby victory over Samoa as the Azzurri ended a nine-match string of defeats in Ascoli on Saturday.
Haimona was making his full Azzurri debut after being called up for the November Tests two weeks ago alongside Fijian Samuela Vunisa.
And the Zebre fly-half proved a useful addition to Jacques Brunel’s stuttering side as they look to put a disastrous Six Nations and summer tour of the South Pacific behind them.
“Kelly proved what a top quality player he is,” said Brunel of the New Zealander.
“He helped us turn the game around and took a lot of individual initiatives. He set up (Sergio) Parisse’s try with a textbook move that is not so easy to execute.”
Italy will face Argentina and South Africa later this month and Brunel’s men, whose last victory was a 37-31 win over Fiji last November, will take some heart from a performance that nevertheless took time to come together.
Brunel added: “The first half we seemed a little confused, we couldn’t keep possession and we lacked organisation.
“But the boys had faith in themselves, especially in the second half.”
A shaky Italy went in for the half-time interval trailing 3-10 after flanker Jack Lam touched down for the Samoans just after the half hour, with fly-half Tusi Pisi converting having levelled Haimona’s third-minute penalty with a penalty on 26 minutes.
It looked as though the Italians might suffer their third consecutive defeat to the Samoans, who whitewashed the Azzurri 15-0 in Apia last June after a crushing 39-10 defeat a year earlier in Nelspruit.
Italy’s last beat Samoa in Ascoli in 2009 and a much-improved second half performance revived memories of that 24-6 victory.
Haimona reduced arrears with a penalty in front of the posts three minutes into the second half and minutes later the Azzurri pulled ahead after a well-worked move from a line-out deep in Samoan territory.
Joshua Furno jumped high to collect and after the ball was fed to Simone Favaro, one of several key players returning to the fray after injury absence, he was driven to the line by a maul before touching down.
Italy remained ahead 11-10 after Haimona missed the conversion, but a Pisi penalty minutes later put the Samoans back in front.
Pisi skewed another penalty attempt just wide of the near post from the left wing just before the hour, and then a seemingly spot-on Haimona penalty from 40 metres out fell just short.
Two minutes later a great run to the try line by centre Michele Campagnaro set Italy up for their second try.
Scrum-half Edoardo Gori dug the ball out to feed Haimona, who looked up before sending a delightful chip over the Samoan defence for Parisse to catch with both hands as he fell unchallenged over the line.
Haimona kicked the easy conversion to give the Azzurri a 21-13 lead with a little under quarter of an hour on the clock.
Another penalty by Haimona gave Italy an 11-point lead with seven minutes remaining and the hosts survived a series of charges late on to claim a morale-boosting win.