A MATCH that began with so much promise from a Scottish point of view ended in the bitterest of disappointments. A Six Nations Championship that started with some modest optimism now holds little but dread.
The remaining games against England and Ireland were always going to be tough, but at least a win against Italy would have sent Scotland into those fixtures with some tangible proof that they are becoming more competitive. Instead, there is the all too real prospect that the tournament will end not only without a win, but with two real hammerings. For a start, one look at Scotland’s impotence on Saturday in the face of the Italian maul should be enough to convince Stuart Lancaster of his tactics for Twickenham in 12 days’ time.
As they had done against both France and Wales, Scotland created some chances that they failed to take against Italy. The difference was that, against less impressive opponents than in those previous two defeats, their defence was debilitated and, at times, disorganised.
In the build-up to the game, the Scotland camp had talked of the need to vary tactics, not only from match to match, but within the course of a contest. In the event, it was the Italians who employed that versatility, showing far greater maturity and self-possession than their hosts.
Having seen Italy take a shock early lead against England, Scotland were determined to get off to a dynamic start, and ran from deep at the first opportunity. But if they thought such a ploy would be enough to demoralise their opponents, they were badly mistaken.
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Instead of going all out to make a swift impact, as they had done in London, the Italians paced themselves well. They had correctly identified Scotland’s weaknesses, and patiently played a limited but productive brand of rugby, driving multiple mauls from the lineout and hoisting up any number of high kicks.
Even so, while the Italians showed greater maturity and leadership, Scotland should still have had it in them to win the game. They took the lead in the second minute through a penalty by captain Greig Laidlaw. They extended that advantage not long afterwards thanks to a Mark Bennett interception try, converted by Laidlaw.
They led at half-time, albeit only by a single point – 16-15. They were ahead at the end of a scoreless third quarter. They were four points up with quarter of an hour to go, thanks to another Laidlaw penalty. And they were still four points up when, with only minutes left, Italy, who had been pressing deep inside the Scotland half, were penalised for an offence in the scrum.
At that point, waves of relief rolled around the stadium. A kick to touch, a lineout to come, and Scotland would surely be able to go through the phases and eat up the remaining time. Sergio Parisse, the Italian captain, certainly thought so: “If they find the touch, we lose the match,” he said later.
But they – or rather, Scotland stand-off Peter Horne – did not find the touch, and Italy, spurred on by the peerless Parisse, did not lose the match.
Italy had got back into the game from the restart after the Bennett try when Sean Lamont stepped into touch and the resultant lineout became a maul. Scotland got numbers to it but could do nothing to halt it, and all too easily, Josh Furno ploughed over for the first of his team’s three tries.
Kelly Haimona missed that conversion attempt, but was successful with a penalty which, sandwiched between two more by Laidlaw, made the score 16-8 within sight of half-time. Then came another penalty for the Italian stand-off and another miss – although this one came crashing back off the posts and into the arms of Giovanbattista Venditti, who touched down on the line to make it, when converted, 16-15 at the break.
Having fallen into a prolonged lull in the third quarter against Wales, Scotland were determined to get the second half off to a bright start and, for a time, they held the upper hand. They had the ball over the line again just after the hour, but the score was disallowed because of a clear forward pass by Lamont to Stuart Hogg.
The Laidlaw penalty that made it 19-15 was scant reward for the home team’s efforts in the second half, but it still looked like being enough until Horne missed touch and the counter-attack began from the halfway line. When the Scots collapsed a maul again, substitute Ben Toolis, making his debut, was yellow-carded.
Down to 14 men, Scotland were in desperate straits. They collapsed again as Parisse powered a maul right to the try line, and this time referee George Clancy awarded a penalty try – and sent another replacement and debutant, Hamish Watson, to join Toolis in the bin. Tommaso Allan converted and Italy had a famous victory to celebrate.
For Scotland, this was the most devastating of defeats. Their indiscipline let them down again – they conceded 13 penalties in addition to those two yellow cards – and their inability to adapt let them down, as, even allowing for some unsympathetic refereeing decisions, they simply had no answer to the Italians’ forward power. They are a young, at times, immature side who need to grow up quickly if they are to avoid having further humiliation heaped upon them in the coming weeks.
Scorers: Scotland – Try: Bennett. Con: Laidlaw. Pens: Laidlaw 4. Italy – Tries: Furno, Venditti, penalty. Cons: Haimona, Allan. Pen: Haimona.
Scotland: Hogg; Seymour, Bennett (Scott 67) Dunbar, Lamont; Horne (Tonks 78), Laidlaw (Hidalgo-Clyne 74); Dickinson (Grant 67), Ford, Murray (Cross 74), Swinson (Toolis 69), J Gray, Harley, Cowan, Beattie (Watson 50).
Italy: McLean; Visentin (Bisegni 69), Morisi, Bacchin, Venditti; Haimona (Allan 44), Gori; Aguero (Manici 57), Ghiraldini (De Marchi 67) Christolini (Cittadino 57), Biagi (Fuser 67), Furno, Minto, Favaro (Vunisa 61), Parisse.