Italy 20, Scotland 36.
You’d be hard pushed to deny that Scotland deserved that win. Over a year down the line, Cotter’s Scotland has improved drastically, regularly putting out good performances, only to fall short because of basic mistakes. With reference to this weekend, Scotland played over fifteen minutes missing a man, thanks to yellow cards for Finn Russell and WP Nel. They were under immense pressure, but they they finally managed to pull of that illusive win, winning their first Six Nations game following a run of ten consecutive defeats in the competition.
As I predicted before the game in my article on ‘Scotland Rugby News’, this was a game won off the back of a strong scrum. We know that since Nel came along the Scotland scrum is stronger than it’s been in a long while, but I for one wasn’t expecting dominance to the extent we saw this weekend. Scotland won all seven of their scrums and turned over two Italian ones. Then you factor in the scrum penalties that Italy were conceding too and it doesn’t make kind reading for the home side. Even with the most talented backs in the world, without a strong scrum platform to work from, you’re always going to struggle.
Defensively Scotland played well. To start with the positives, Scotland defended valiantly for a large part of the second half, ending the game with nearly double the number of tackles and a success rate of 88%. Italy were bashing away at the line in the second half and it only gave once, just after Russell’s yellow when Marco Fuser crashed over. However, the rest of the time Scotland stayed strong, despite the Italians boasting 72% possession and 76% territory in the second half. The main areas they will be disappointed with is how they kept the Italians in the game from the restart. Sergio Parrisse and Italy’s out-half, Kelly Haimona, linked beautifully on a number of occasions for Italy to regather the ball immediately from the kick, giving them possession in a handy area of the field and getting them on the front foot immediately. This was a big contributor to the possession and territory stats. Scotland’s most concerning defensive slip was for Italy’s first try. Scotland often defend with an aggressive ‘blitz defence’, which is excellent if you wrap ball and man up. However, on this occasion, Gonzalo Garcia the ball got away to Leonardo Ghiraldini who duped Stuart Hogg with a dummy and crossed the line for a well worked try. The ball has to be secured if blitz defence is going to be effective.
In attack other than perhaps the first try, Italy were poor. With the figures mentioned above, they should have broken the Scottish line more often. With two yellow cards, it seemed as though Scotland may have had their second-half melt down and were going to gift the win to the Azzurri. However, other than Fuser’s try, Italy failed to convert possession into points. That’s not to take away from Scotland’s defence, but other sides would have taken advantage of those opportunities you feel. Scotland on the other hand came out of the gates flying. Hogg was crucial, setting up two tries, one for Barclay and another for Tommy Seymour. Ryan Wilson was promoted to the starting XV after a late David Denton injury and was excellent, both in getting the Scots onto the front foot, but also in getting away a brilliant final pass to put John Hardie in for Scotland’s second try of the day. John Barclay was also ever present and cut a beautifu line for the first try of the fixture.
It’s also worth giving credit to Josh Strauss- he came on from the bench, drafted into the side at the last minute, despite having played a key role as Glasgow Warriors saw of Newport Gwent Dragons on Thursday evening.
With reference to the man of the match award, I wouldn’t say that Greig Laidlaw didn’t deserve it. He rallied his troops, kicked his kicks and spread the ball wide in the lead up to Scotland’s last try, instead of playing it safe throught the forwards. However, Parisse was outstanding. I would even go as far as saying it was one of his best matches in an Italian shirt. He was central to Scotland’s problems at the restart, made a couple of brilliant runs, took quick ball from penalties and at times (as pointed out by the commentators) even appeared to be dictating what the backs did. Laidlaw was great, but I think Parisse can feel hard done by. That said, Parisse would probably rather a win than another man of the match award.
This positivity has to be backed up. If Scotland fail to overcome a very poor French side at Murrayfield in two weeks it will make this game just another fifth/sixth place play off. The French will bring physicality. However, if Scotland’s scrum works again and they trust their systems, they can realistically travel to Ireland on the final week with the wind in their sails and hunting for a third win. But that all depends on them beating the French. With away games to Wales and Ireland left, the outlook looks bleak once again for the Azzurri.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to see enough of the England or Wales games to comment this week.
You can watch the extended highlights from Rome, here.
Official match statistics are available here.
As always, don’t forget get in touch with any advice or comments. A link to my twitter feed is at the bottom of the page.
The Scribbler, February 28th, 2016