The Scotland eight played Italy at their own game and, by the second half, did it better
WHAT better place than Rome for a miraculous transformation? That’s certainly what we witnessed yesterday, with the men of straw from Murrayfield becoming ten feet tall within a fortnight.
From the meek and mild pack steamrollered during the Calcutta Cup humiliation, Scotland’s forwards morphed into a nuggety crew which not only stuck to its guns but which actually took the fight to an Azzurri eight which had clearly expected to dominate.
In fairness, Italy absolutely dominated the scrum, giving Moray Low a beasting which he won’t forget in a hurry. The Warriors prop gave away penalties in four of the first five scrums and suffered the ultimate indignity of being replaced two minutes before half-time, presumably in case referee Steve Walsh got around to yellow-carding him. If Ryan Grant had not dug in, Scotland may well have been swept away in that first 20 minutes.
Italy marmelised Scotland’s front row in the first half, Tommy Allan scoring ten of Italy’s 13 first-half points off the set-piece. The first came via a penalty when Low was pinged within range, he then missed another after yet another Low transgression, but then scored a try off Sergio Parisse’s charge off the back of a scrum just before half-time. Yet, as in Scotland’s summer win over Italy, when Scotland dragged themselves back into a game in which they had been second best as soon as they gained parity at the scrum, the set-piece was once again key.
After half-time, when Italy coach Jacques Brunel unaccountably took off his dominant front row and Scotland’s replacements Alasdair Dickinson and Geoff Cross stabilised the scrum against their replacements, Scotland surged back into the game. They were helped, of course, by their new-found mastery of the other aspect of the set-piece, the lineout.
If Moray Low will take a long time to recover from this display, so will Ross Ford, for his replacement Scott Lawson was faultless, hitting his jumpers at all ten Scottish throw-ins to the lineout. It would be difficult to overstate Lawson’s contribution to this win. Not only that, but, as well as winning their own ball, Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray successfully targeted the Italian jumpers and won vital early lineouts on Italy’s throw. There had been plenty of talk of Italy kicking to the corners and pressuring the Scottish lineout, but the visitors’ pack ensured that kicking to touch wasn’t a sensible option.
Instead, Italy’s backs ran at Duncan Weir while their forwards targeted the midfield. It was a tactic which worked for most of the first half too, especially as Scotland fell off tackles and, with the Azzurri clearly on the front foot in contact, constantly infringed at the breakdown. Taken together with the problems at the scrum, the Italian heavy cavalry put the Scots under huge pressure early on, building a penalty count of ten infringements against Scotland and just two in their favour. Little wonder that referee Walsh read the riot act to skipper Greig Laidlaw while fiddling with the yellow card in his pocket just to emphasise the point.
Yet if one of the heaviest packs ever fielded by Scotland was under the cosh at times, this was also a tremendously brave performance from a gargantuan Scottish eight.
With some muscular bursts aimed at tackle-shy Italian stand-off Allan from centres Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott giving the forwards a target, and openside Chris Fusaro adept at recycling possession quickly, they gradually began to put together concerted phases of play.
Unlike their two previous displays in the tournament, this was not just endless phase play that climaxed with a forced overload and lost possession. This was measured, pressure rugby. No.8 Johnnie Beattie, the superb and revitalised Gray and hooker Lawson in particular carried magnificently, often right into the heart of the Italian pack.
There was a palpable absence of the overload-too-far, with the ball being judiciously moved into midfield when Scotland looked to be heading down a blind alley.
With Dunbar and Scott their willing accomplices, as the match wore on Scotland’s forwards strangled the life out of Italy’s eight. Rather than kicking away possession, as they did against England, Scotland’s short passes and their dynamic rucking game saw them dominate both territory and possession, leaving the Azzurri to feed on scraps.
In virtually every area, Scotland and Italy’s stats were almost identical, except in a hyperactive second-half performance that saw Scotland dominate both territory and possession.
After parity before the break, Scotland had 75 per cent of second-half territory and 67 per cent of possession, making a total for the game of 134 runs to Italy’s 89 and 175 passes to Italy’s 92.
Scotland may have left it late to win this one, but there was no element of luck to this win. Scotland’s victory was founded on forward power and they thoroughly deserved their last-gasp victory.
The extent of Scotland’s domination after the break was demonstrated by the decision to bring on ball-carrier David Denton for Fusaro. As Italy ceded the collision area, committing fewer players to the breakdown, Scotland recycled far more easily but found the crowded defensive line more difficult to break through. Even then there remains more than a sneaking suspicion that Scotland still haven’t got their back row right. This was Ryan Wilson’s best match in a Scotland shirt, yet he still doesn’t look entirely comfortable, and when fit, the more agricultural style of Al Strokosch may well hold sway. Or perhaps the talented and curiously discarded ex-skipper Kelly Brown may actually be played for his country in his proper position.
Yesterday, though, the plan and the personnel fitted the occasion. Scotland nullified the Italians’ strongest suit, overcame their own yips at the lineout and took their hosts on at their own game and won. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but for now it’s time to bask in a rare ray of sunshine.