Of all the many test matches being played out this November the most intriguing was surely Italy v Japan.
Andrea Di Giandomenico, Italyâ€™s head coach, caused a minor surprise by announcing a squad of only 23 – the regulation number for a single test – for both this game and the visit to Bedford the following week. Hard to believe that their most eminent player, Sara Barattin, celebrating her 90th cap, would be asked to stick it out for all 160 minutes. But she was the only scrum-half listed.
She did indeed play the entire length of the game in Lâ€™Aquila, and it was another thriller. Japan, ranked 16th in the world, held the 6th-ranked to a 17-17 draw, thanks to a final try by Seina Saito, their captain at the last World Cup.
This must be counted as a setback for the Azzurre. Though they were missing experienced players like their captain Manuela Furlan, they must have believed that home advantage alone would see them through, but no. This was the third time the two nations had met and the first time Italy had failed to win.
Di Giandomenico needed victory here to set his side up for the harder challenge to come. Italy havenâ€™t yet lowered the Red Rosesâ€™ colours.
About 2,500 watched the game.
Now they come to Bedford to face an England side still searching for the key to high scoring that they lost after the USA match in San Diego.
There is one new name in the 23: Melissa Bettoni replaces Ilaria Arrighetti who captained the side. The loss of Arrighetti alongside the team captain Manuela Furlan is a double blow for Italy, already shaken by the news of Conor Oâ€™Sheaâ€™s resignation from his post as Director of Rugby for menâ€™s rugby.
England might feel equally bereft, but that is where their depth of talent helps them out. After the two French contests Simon Middleton admitted that injuries were making selection a tricky business. Of the 23 on call in Exeter Abby Dow and Poppy Cleall are unlikely to be available.
Under the present management we are used to the entire squad being employed in every match. It was strange to find Lydia Thompson left on the bench in Clermont, and she had to wait till the last minute of the return match to make her presence felt.
But with so many first-choice players out of action at the moment we wonder if this policy needs to be retained. Once again the England pack was forced into undignified retreat in the last quarter of the game. Caroline Boujardâ€™s try was a direct result. So too were the injuries to Dow and Cleall. If the same front five had stayed on the field, would this triple mishap have occurred?
Middleton wants to widen the strength of his squad before the Six Nations come by. He had four non-contracted players on view at (Dow, Kerr, Marston and Perry). We may well see more new names called up, though he wouldnâ€™t wish to offer them the tension that Rownita Marston faced as she stepped out for her debut in the last few minutes of the Sandy Park cliff-hanger.
Emily Scarratt achieved the unusual distinction of reaching 500 points for her country on two consecutive weekends â€“ according to different sources. Whose fault is that? Surely not the RFUâ€™s? Who looks after these records?
So she joins Katy Daley-Mclean on this notable mark. Itâ€™s highly unlikely that this double will ever be achieved again. Two remarkable players for one team.
The Italian Squad:
LuciaÂ GAI (Valsugana R. Padova, 65 caps)
Michela MERLO (Rugby Mantova, 4 caps)
Sara TOUNESI (HBS Colorno, 11 caps)â€¨Silvia TURANI (HBS Colorno, 11 caps)
Melissa BETTONI (Stade Rennais, France, 53 caps)
Giulia CERATO (Valsugana R. Padova, 1 cap)
Lucia CAMMARANO (Rugby Belve Neroverdi), 22 caps)
Giordana DUCA (Valsugana R. Padova, 13 caps)
Valeria FEDRIGHI (Stade Toulousain, France, 17 caps)
Valentina RUZZA (Stade Francais, France, 30 caps)
Giada FRANCO (Harlequins Ladies, England, 12 caps)
Isabella LOCATELLI (Rugby Monza 1949, 22 caps)
Elisa GIORDANO (Valsugana R. Padova, 38 caps)
Francesca SGORBINI (HBS Colorno, 1 cap)
Sara BARATTIN (Arredissima Villorba Rugby, 90 caps)
Micol CAVINAÂ Arredissima Villorba Rugby, 4 caps)
Laura PAGANINI (CUS Milan, 1 cap)
Beatrice CAPOMAGGIÂ (R. Capitolina Union, uncapped)
Beatrice RIGONI (Valsugana R. Padova, 38 caps)
Michela SILLARI (Valsugana R. Padova, 52 caps)
Maria MAGATTI (CUS Milan, 29 caps)
Camilla SARASSO (CUS Turin, 4 caps)
Sofia STEFAN (Valsugana R. Padova, 51 caps)