THE chances of Scotland Women making it to a World Cup for the first time since 2010 appear as remote as they have ever been after Bryan Easson’s side slumped to a heavy defeat in their opening match of the European qualifying repechage tournament in Italy this [Monday] afternoon.
They now have two more games to play in the competition, against Spain this coming Sunday and then Ireland the following Saturday, and must target two wins. Finishing top of the pool is highly unlikely, but the hope of finishing second and therefore qualifying for the ‘Final Qualification Tournament ‘(FQT), which will pit them against Samoa, Columbia and the Asia Championship runner-up (Hong Kong, Japan or Kazakhstan) is still alive.
The Scots will take some comfort and try to build confidence from winning the final quarter of this game 7-0 despite bing unaccustomed to the stifling heat at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma, and from the knowledge that cutting down on their unforced error count earlier in the match will leave them a far gentler mountain to climb in six days’ time.
“I think the errors were on us,” insisted beaten captain Rachel Malcolm afterwards. “We’re not going to make any excuses about that. It was things that we did wrong rather than the pressure we were put under. Italy played very well and we knew they could do well off our errors, we’ve seen that in the past, and today we had too many unforced errors on our part which gave them the platform to play off.
“I think we showed in parts what we can do, particularly in the second half when we showed dominance at the set-piece and the maul, but there are things we’ll definitely need to look at going into the Spain game. We need to regroup and come back stronger.”
Malcolm added that the sticky conditions had been a factor in the team’s performance. “It’s not something we’re particularly used to,” she reasoned. “We prepared as well as we could with the resources we have. I’m not sure what the temperature on the pitch was but it definitely felt hot, particularly in that first half. We know we were playing against a team who are more familiar with those conditions but I think today is only going to make us stronger going into the next game. I think we’ll acclimatise more and more over the next couple of days, going into two hard games.”
It got off to an inauspicious start for the Scots, with a penalty conceded straight from kick-off and the powerful Italian pack bulldozing its way to the opening try through openside-flanker Giada Franco with just one minute and 45 seconds on the clock. Michela Sillari added the conversion.
The away team initially rallied well, and a Helen Nelson penalty on six minutes reduced the gap to four points, but they couldn’t sustain it against a faster, more physical and more streetwise Italian collective, who capitalised on two overthrown Scottish line-outs and some sloppy defence to race into a 19-3 lead through a couple of quick-fire tries from Maria Magatti and Sara Barattin around the 20 minute mark.
Another Nelson penalty briefly slowed Italian momentum, but the hosts finished the half with the bonus point in the bag when several phases of controlled build-up play led to Veronica Madia releasing Ilaria Arrighetti on a killer line. The blindside flanker thundered home from 25 yards, blasting past Megan Gaffney and Chloe Rollie on her way to the line.
The Scots started the second half in fairly positive style, winning a succession of ruck penalties to get within range for another shot at goal for Nelson, but this time her effort sailed to the wrong side of the posts so the gap stayed at 20 points, and despite dominating territory for the next 10 minutes, Easson’s side struggled to get inside the strike-zone.
Italy, meanwhile, were ruthless when they swooped on a Scottish mistake in the middle of the park and streaked home from 50-yards, with Magatti and Barattin doing the initial damage, and Sillari finishing off.
It looked like the floodgates may have opened when Veronica Madia prodded an inch-perfect kick over the top for Manuela Furlan to score try number six, making it 38-6 with 20 minutes still to go.
There was, however, a drinks break, which gave the Scots a chance to refresh and regroup, and with replacement Italian flanker Francesca Sgorbini being sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on, the Scots finally threatened the try-line.
Their first assault floundered when Sarah Bonar was turned over just a few inches short, but the Scots kept their foot on the gas and finally got their reward when a long, looping pass from Lisa Thomson gave Rhona Lloyd the gap she needed to squeeze over in the corner, with Sarah Law nailing the touchline conversion.
That finished the scoring, and while the Scots should take some credit for finishing better than they had started, with their scrum in particular getting on top, we must also acknowledge the fact that Italy were in cruise control for much of the final quarter.
“We’ve got another two games that will allow us to progress but we have to learn from what’s happened today and I think the key thing was simple errors and then compounding the errors,” concluded head coach Easson. “It wasn’t just a mistake and we got better, it was one mistake, then two, then three and by that time we’re chasing and it is very, very difficult in this heat to chase the game.”
Malcolm added: “We came here knowing we had three games. Every game for us is a cup final. So we bin it to an extent, we review it, we get better and we focus on our next cup final. We’ve got six days to regroup and that’s exactly what we’ll do.
“This group has come against results like this before and we’ve come back stronger and we’ll do exactly the same again.”
Italy: V Ostuni Minuzzi; M Furlan, M Sillari, B Rigoni, M Magatti; V Madia (A D’Inca 71), S Barattin (S Stefan 71); G Maris ( M Merlo 71), M Bettoni (V Vecchini 51), L Gai (S Seye 75), V Fedrighi, G Duca, I Arrighetti, G Franco (F Sgorbini 52), E Giordano.
Scotland: C Rollie; R Lloyd, H Smith (K Dougan 78), L Thomson, M Gaffney; H Nelson (S Law 57), J Maxwell (M McDonald 57); L Bartlett (L Cockburn 51), L Skeldon (M Wright 61), C Belisle, E Wassell, S Bonar, R Malcolm, L McMillan (R McLachlan 57), J Konkel (E Gallagher 61).
Italy: Tries: Franco, Magatti, Barattin, Arrighetti, Sillari, Furlan; Con: Sillari 4.
Scotland: Try: Lloyd; Con: Law; Pens: Nelson 2.
Scoring sequence (Italy first): 5-0; 7-0; 7-3; 12-3; 17-3; 19-3; 19-6; 24-6; 26-6 (h-t) 31-6; 33-6; 38-6; 38-11; 38-13.
Yellow cards –
Italy: Sgorbini (62mins)
Scotland: Belisle (76 mins)