Richard Bath: Six Nations - Italy stuck in ruck

Scotland's Johnnie Beattie worked hard for victory. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scotland's Johnnie Beattie worked hard for victory. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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EVERY image is worth a thousand words, and after this match Italian captain Sergio Parisse’s face was a picture of misery.

Ever the diplomat, he paid tribute to his hosts before ruing the missed tackles and mistakes which led to Scotland’s killer tries.

He was also full of remorse, not just for a gameplan which departed from the traditional attritional in-the-trenches script of these Italy versus Scotland encounters – “maybe we just tried to play too much rugby” he said – but for his own poor performance. While Italy’s talisman did produce one deft sleight of hand off the back of a second-half scrum for the visitors’ only try, this was undoubtedly one of his weakest showings in his 92-cap Test career.

“We struggled to get any momentum,” he said. “The Scots contested every single ruck and we weren’t aggressive enough and didn’t clear out the rucks well enough. The Scots played very intelligently – they managed to slow the ruck ball down and played the referee very well.”

In other words, Scotland did to Italy what the Azzurri did to France last week, winning the breakdown as emphatically as England had done against Scott Johnson’s men at Twickenham last week. It was a remarkable turnaround that owed much to some straight talking in midweek, an assured debut on the blindside from Rob Harley and a myopic focus on the breakdown which involved No.8 Johnnie Beattie spending most of his time at the bottom of rucks.

“I didn’t have anywhere near as much space as I did at Twickenham, but that’s probably because I found myself clearing out rucks and doing a lot of the heavy lifting,” said Beattie. “Not that you mind if you look up at the scoreboard and see that you’re four tries up as a result.”

So why didn’t Scotland contest the breakdown more aggressively and in greater numbers last week? Or has there been a change in policy?

“We didn’t commit enough players to the breakdown last week but that wasn’t a conscious decision,” he said. “It was more that we got our numbers right this week because we were in the right place so we couldn’t win decent ball and generate front-foot ball.

“This week we managed to nullify players like Sergio Parisse as a consequence of realising that if we give anyone space like we did last week then they’re going to look like world champions. Our defensive system is about getting off our line quickly and getting into people’s faces, because when you do that as we did today then you force people to make mistakes.”

It certainly worked: Parisse could be heard through the ref-link berating his players and his frustration was unmistakable. At one stage he put in a late hit on Greig Laidlaw, kneed a Scotland player at a ruck and then tried to punch Laidlaw at the same ruck. When the most unflappable Italian on God’s earth starts getting so irascible, the job is half done.

It’s little wonder that the Italy captain got more than a little stroppy though, because neither his team nor he were allowed to perform as they expected. “Italy still tried to play through Parisse a lot, but our defence was better than last week because we’d learnt the lessons from then and we managed to get up quickly, get man and ball and force knock-ons and turnovers,” said Beattie. “I know Sergio will see it differently, but we got the rub of the green from the referee because our scrum was dominant, our lineout functioned well and we chopped them and competed well at the breakdown. When you do that and are as positive as we were you’re going to get decisions.”

Although Scotland’s backs thrust the rapier into Italy’s heart, this was a victory founded on defensive obduracy and forward grunt. The front five were outstanding in the scrum and were more comfortable in the lineout than they have appeared for some time, but it was the performance of a Scotland back row which appeared to be the best balanced since the days of the Three Bs (Barclay, Beattie and Brown) which did the most to stop the Italian juggernaut. Despite dominating the stats with 63 per cent of territory and possession, Scotland’s back row was so effective that they never looked likely to register the points such figures suggest. At times they looked like Scotland in disguise.

While Beattie believes he has some way to go before he gets back to the standard of play he reached in the days of the Three Bs, such was the impact of debutant Rob Harley yesterday that John Barclay may struggle to reunite the trio. Alongside Kelly Brown’s masochistic unselfishness at the breakdown, the flame-haired 22-year-old’s astute play and sheer physicality were key factors in Scotland’s victory.

“I played with Rob for two seasons at Glasgow and knew exactly what he would do when he gets a chance,” says Beattie. “I’ve always thought that when he finally got a chance at international level, it’s going to be very, very hard to move him. He’s that type of bloke; he brings a fantastic amount of energy to a team and everyone loves playing with him and watching him because he’s incredible. I expected him to be the man of the match today and for me I think he was – the amount of things he did, the amount of their balls he messed up, the amount of turnovers he won for us, I thought he was remarkable.”

As indeed was Beattie. He may not be back to his best yet, but at least he’s now on the right road – as, more importantly, are Scotland.