Six Nations: Rob Harley learns from early slip

Rob Harley celebrating their win. Picture: Jane Barlow
Rob Harley celebrating their win. Picture: Jane Barlow
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GLASGOW Warrior Rob Harley missed a tackle on Italian captain Sergio Parisse in the first few minutes of his debut Murrayfield Test match, but the bristling back row sucked up that introduction to the Six Nations arena and never looked back.

“I got my technique wrong and he took advantage,” said the 22-year-old blindside flanker brought into the starting XV for the first time for his second cap.

“He’s not a bad player, Parisse. It was great feet and a big fend. I guess it was a welcome to international rugby for me. I learned quickly that if you get the slightest thing wrong you are going to be punished. My teammates rallied round to help me, told me to go low the next time. So next time, I went low.” That is Harley all round. He learns quickly. The 22-year-old, promoted to the team to replace the injured Alastair Strokosch, learned his lesson well and barely put a foot wrong for the next 75 minutes, dominating the breakdown with his back-row colleagues Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown.

The trio earned a back-handed compliment from Parisse afterwards, when the world-class Italian skipper admitted that the Scots “played the referee” so much better than the Italians, remembering in particular, with a wry smile, the moment near the end where Harley nudged the ball from his hands at the back of a scrum and the referee awarded Scotland the scrum for a knock-on.

Scotland contested every ruck and slowed down ball using all and every means at their disposal and with a controlled aggression the Azzurri could not match. “It was important to try and disrupt their rhythm,” Harley said. “When they get the ball moving they are a very good side and they will make line breaks and their off-loads can be tremendous. There were times when they really pinned us back and kept us on the back foot. The pace of the game was absolutely relentless. They just kept coming at us. The atmosphere was incredible with the noise round the stadium coming from all directions. It kind of magnifies the pressure, but it magnifies the feeling when things go well.”

Harley had gone into Saturday’s match with the words of inspiration provided by his rugby hero Jason White ringing in his ears. The former Scotland captain, who earlier in the week had been named by Harley as his player he most admired when he was younger, turned up at the team hotel on Friday night to speak to the squad and hand Harley his first Six Nations jersey. Harley is now all but certain to keep it for the next game against Ireland at Murrayfield in two weeks time, a selection dilemma for the coaches avoided by Strokosch’s injury confining him to the sidelines. Beattie is also sure of his place. Against Italy, he enjoyed being behind a pack that wasn’t giving ground and was therefore able to provide time and space for the backs to use their pace and creativity to score the tries.

“We handled the collisions much better than we did against England and that put us on the front foot in so many aspects,” said the man from the Montpellier club. “It was a huge defensive effort. The amount of big hits and collisions and tackles that were going was incredible. It was really pleasing. It’s a great feeling when you see the work that guys like Ryan Grant, Euan Murray and Ross Ford put in getting a return. Whatever the difference was from the England game, it’s never been a question of team spirit. You could see the Italians getting despondent at the way things were going on the pitch and maybe that was what happened to us against England.

“I think we got the things preceding the breakdown a lot better this weekend. The quality of ball we produced made things a lot easier and we saw what guys like Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott can do when we create a bit of space for them. That is what we didn’t deliver last week.

Maintaining the mantra clear throughout the squad, that this is only the start of something, Beattie added: “We have now set a benchmark and can look forward to Ireland in two weeks’ time, but I think the level that Ireland have shown in the last 12 months is different to Italy. With no disrespect to Italy, Ireland are a better side so we will have to raise our game, but this is the essence of professional rugby, where you aim to right the things you did wrong the previous week and build something.”