Allan Massie: Not much learned from dreadful game

A THUNDERSTORM blocking out the satellite signal deprived me of the last ten minutes or so of the match in Turin. At the time “spared” seemed a better word than “deprived”, for it had been a truly dreadful match. As it happened Scotland rallied to score a good try and, importantly, to end the sequence of defeats. All the same there wasn’t much to enthuse over, and it is doubtful how much Vern Cotter will have learned.

Scrumhalf Sam HidalgoClyne, starting an international for the first time, did not look out of place in the 1612 win over Italy in Turin. Picture: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Admittedly the defence was mostly resolute and well-disciplined. It had to be since Italy must have enjoyed some 70 to 75 per cent of possession and territory. On the other hand they obligingly botched three or four scoring chances by knocking the ball on in our 22. Better teams – South Africa and, probably, Samoa – are unlikely to be so generous.

It was very much a stop-start match, principally because there were a lot of set scrums and they were almost all unsatisfactory. When Australia played New Zealand in Sydney a couple of weeks ago, the scrums didn’t collapse and the ball was quite frequently delivered to the backs. In Turin pretty well every scrum went down and had to be reset, sometimes more than once. Neither side seemed interested in getting the ball out of the scrum, both regarding it as a means of winning a penalty. This is as boring as it is unsatisfactory. So the game rarely flowed.

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Italy dominated the breakdown, partly of course because they were the side carrying the ball forward. But we were only occasionally getting someone over the ball quickly enough to have a chance of a turnover, or even to slow up the Italian possession. Compared, say, to the Irish back-row the previous week, this Scottish one was ineffective. I wouldn’t have thought that any of the three – Alasdair Strokosch, Adam Ashe and John Hardie – did enough to secure a place in the 31-man World Cup squad. But I imagine Vern Cotter will at least want to have another look at Hardie who did put in a fair number of tackles. Still their back-row rivals may think this was a pretty good game to have missed. Likewise Roddy Grant and Chris Fusaro, neither included in the 46-man training squad, both adept at winning possession at the breakdown point, or ripping the ball away from an opponent’s hands, are, on the evidence of the two warm-up games, entitled to feel aggrieved as well as disappointed.

Young Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, starting an international for the first time, did pretty well, and certainly didn’t look out of place. One admirably conceived and executed kick off his right – which is to say, wrong – foot set up a position from which we might very well have scored a try in the first half – the only time indeed that we looked like doing that. All the same, Hidalgo-Clyne is probably No 3 in the 
No 9 pecking order.

Matt Scott did enough to suggest that he is coming back to form, and will challenge Peter Horne for the No 12 jersey if Alex Dunbar isn’t fit. Richie Vernon, however, scarcely had a chance to make use of his strength and pace in attack. One nice loop pass to Sean Lamont was unfortunately intercepted by Greig Tonks who knocked the ball on in doing so. That said, Tonks was admirably steady under the high ball. Rory Hughes on his debut showed a good deal of fire and pace, and with a little bit of luck might have latched on to a kick to his wing and galloped away for a try. Yet he is surely one for the future, not the present.

In mitigation for what was generally a rather sorry performance, one should say that, first, Scotland-Italy matches are usually pretty dour and even dull occasions; and, second, this was very much a scratch Scotland team, seven or eight of whom are unlikely to feature in the final 31-man squad. One should add also that these warm-up matches are difficult affairs. Wales were lamentably poor against Ireland in Cardiff, England, reportedly, desperately bad for more than the first hour against France in Paris.

With the World Cup still a few weeks away, teams don’t want to peak too soon, but it’s doubtful how much value there is in a match as bad this one. We will all surely be looking for a bit of sparkle and enterprise in the return fixture on Saturday. Presumably Cotter will choose to field something more closely resembling a first-choice side. Even so, it won’t offer much entertainment if the set scrums keep collapsing. And we will continue to struggle if we concede as many penalties as we did first in Dublin and then in Turin.