Ben Healy steals show as Scotland overcome Italy to begin World Cup warm-up series with victory
Healy was excellent in his first Test start, playing with an assurance which suggested he had been around at this level for years. His kicking from hand was particularly impressive and he added much needed calmness in a match which was ragged at times. Darcy Graham marked his return to the national side after a serious knee injury with a try in each half, and Josh Bayliss added a third in the final minute, but the final scoreline was harsh on Italy who Scotland struggled to shake off. Montanna Ioane scored their only try and Tommaso Allan kicked eight points but the Scots were grateful for Healy’s accurate boot. The former Ireland Under-20 player landed two penalties and two conversions.
Scotland will welcome France to Edinburgh next week and will need to up their game. They made 13 handling errors against Italy, albeit that the ball was slippy, and the lineout and scrum faltered at times during the first half.
It’s four and half months since these sides last faced each other but any feelings of familiarity would be negated by the wholesale personnel changes. Scotland retained only four starters from the Six Nations win in March – Ollie Smith, Kyle Steyn, George Turner and Sam Skinner – a sure sign that Townsend was keen to use this first World Cup warm-up to experiment a little. Stafford McDowall was making his debut and there were also first starts for Ben Healy and Murphy Walker but of equal interest was the return of some familiar faces who had either missed the Six Nations or played only a peripheral part.
A serious knee injury had robbed Graham of a large chunk of the season but the buzzbomb winger didn’t take long to settle back into the Test routine. Graham had scored a hat-trick on his last Scotland appearance, against Argentina last November, and he gave Scotland the lead against Italy with a try which owed much to Healy’s vision. The pair had combined as early as the sixth minute when the stand-off kicked long, only for Graham to stumble as he chased the bouncing ball. There was no mistake six minutes later when Scotland worked the maul well, narrowing the Italy defence. The ball was zipped out to Healy who floated a nicely judged kick into the Italian in-goal area for Graham to dot down.
Healy, from Tipperary, has traded green for dark blue and has designs on going to the World Cup and he did his chances no harm with an assured display. His kicking was excellent, both in range and accuracy, and he played with a vision which suggests Edinburgh have landed a gem for next season. He wasn’t able to land the conversion from close to the touchline but Scotland were grateful for the lead after Italy had made most of the early running.
It was scrappy at times, particularly in the set-piece, as both sides tried to shake off the close-season rust. Test rugby in July felt a little incongruous, especially after Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Styles and Manchester United had all graced this turf in recent weeks. A first-half downpour made it feel a little more autumnal but it also meant a slippy ball and Scotland in particular were guilty of a few fumbles. Italy almost capitalised on some messy play by the home side midway through the first half after a loose pass from Ali Price went to ground. The Italians hacked on and Smith looked to have dealt with it only for the ball to squirm from his grasp and it was left to Chris Harris to mop up the mess.
Italy continued to press and got their reward with a penalty after Darge had strayed offside. Allan slotted it over to reduce Scotland’s lead to 5-3 and the Italians edged ahead in injury time in the first half, Allan landing his second penalty after the Scots had transgressed at the scrum.
Trailing 6-5, the home side came out firing for the second half and Kyle Steyn went close in the first minute. Townsend changed his front row shortly after and the coach would have been hoping Stuart McInally, Jamie Bhatti and Javan Sebastian could bring a bit more control to the scrum. A penalty from Healy saw Scotland regain the lead and they moved further ahead with Graham’s second try. McDowall laid the groundwork with a big carry from a scrum. The ball was recycled and Price fed the onrushing Graham who dived through the middle of a bunch of Italian forwards to score. Healy’s conversion made it 16-6 but Italy weren’t out of it and put Townsend’s side under some serious pressure midway through the half. They made the most of it, Allan spinning the ball wide to Ioane who had a simple finish as Italy outnumbered their opponents down the left wing. Allan converted impressively from out wide to make it a two-point game going into the final quarter.
A slew of substitutions followed, with Cameron Henderson coming on in the second row to win his first cap. Healy extended Scotland’s lead to 18-13 with a penalty in the 76th minute and they finished with a flourish thanks to Bayliss’ late, late try. Cam Redpath played him in but the Bath forward still had plenty to do and produced a nifty goose step to score in the corner. It was his first international try and added a bit of gloss to the scoreline. Healy converted from the touchline to put the seal on a man-of-the-match performance.
Scotland scorers – Tries: Graham 2, Bayliss. Cons: Healy 2. Pens: Healy 2.
Italy scorers – Try: Ioane. Con: Allan. Pens: Allan 2.