victory helps lift scots morale

Scotland will travel to New Zealand will the inestimable boost to morale of two wins in their last two outings, or three from three if you include the final game of the Six Nations. Andy Robinson’s men will face tougher challenges in the coming weeks but they have struggled often enough against this same opposition not to take particular pleasure in yesterday’s margin of victory, even if there is work to do especially in tightening up the nuts and bolts of a porous defence. The Italians are not noted for the incision of their back line so the 2-2 try count was cause for concern.

With the World Cup squad to be announced tomorrow, there was mixed news on the injury front. Chris Cusiter and Euan Murray both came through unscathed but Scotland suffered a late scare when Nikki Walker had to be carted off the field in a golf buggy with a knee problem. It won’t come as much comfort to the big Hawick winger but, if he’s unavailable, it would at least solve Robinson’s last selection headache.

There was much to admire in the energy, width and accuracy that Scotland brought to this game, especially in the first and last quarters, and, had their defence matched their excellence elsewhere, it is just possible that the team could have run up a big score. Instead they allowed the Italians two soft tries that kept the visitors in the game.

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Dan Parks settled nerves with an early penalty before the Jack-in-the-Box that is Max Evans created the first try for Ally Dickinson, bouncing off the floor after a tackle five metres from the line before offloading to the willing prop. With the home team enjoying a 10-0 lead and in almost total control of events on the field, Italy then carved out the best try of the match by some margin, which knocked the Scots off their stride.

It was started by the peerless No8 Sergio Parisse inside his own 22 and, umpteen offloads later, finished by the electric winger Tommaso Benvenuti. The length-of-the-field try was wholly against the run of play, the Scots were temporarily derailed and Italy’s second try, early in the second half when scrum-half Fabio Semenzato wriggled through way too many Scottish shirts, narrowed the deficit to just one point. The Italians would even have stolen the lead had Mirco Bergamasco not fluffed two shots at goal.

Just as it looked like the Azzurri were staging the Great Escape, home nerves were soothed by a moment of individual excellence from Mike Blair who looks certain to travel. First he charged down a clearance kick from full-back Andrea Masi and then was first to dive on the bouncing ball over the try line. Parks converted that try and added a penalty shortly after and Scotland had a 23-12 lead that they never relinquished.

Ruaridh Jackson replaced Parks after the Aussie had fluffed a penalty attempt around the one hour mark but his replacement proved no more successful with his own attempt. Still the home side dominated the last quarter almost as completely as they had done the first and only some desperate Italian defence kept the visitors’ line intact.

A good few fringe players did their cause no harm. Rory Lamont did enough with the ball in hand to lay claim to the starting full-back spot. Scott Lawson was a dynamo at hooker. The ephemeral Nick De Luca blew hot rather than cold with two cracking clean breaks, heaps of energy and a man of the match award. Richie Vernon carried the ball well although he, among others, was at fault for Italy’s second score, and, if you squint a little, you can just about see shades of Shane Williams in some of Evans’ wing play, which is precisely why Robinson has stuck him there.

Parks nudged a few critics in the ribs with a performance that suggested he may yet have a part to play in New Zealand. The Aussie still stands too deep to worry any but the most arthritic defender and a couple of kicks were a bit wayward, but his general game management and most of his kicking from hand were classy. One raking kick rolled into touch a matter of yards from the Italian line, hoofed fully 70 yards, and the Scots almost pounced on the Italian throw.

If the Scots had a weakness exposed, it was in the front row, a problem area that had been anticipated by just about everyone. Italy fielded two veterans in Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni against the relative novices of Moray Low and Dickinson and it showed. The Italians didn’t get things all their own way but they did enough to give Robinson a few sleepless nights. The Italian big men won at least three penalties at the coalface in the first half alone and they also wheeled the scrum almost at will.

Matters improved noticeably following Euan Murray’s appearance at tighthead on 55 minutes but first-choice loosehead Allan Jacobsen needs to last a lot longer in New Zealand than the 20 minutes he managed in France four years ago or Scotland’s World Cup adventure could be short-lived.