DAVID BARNES @ Broadwood
THE scoreboard recorded this as a two-point victory but that does not do justice to the control and self-belief shown by a Scotland team which has made huge strides forward during four short months (since missing out on World Cup qualification with back-to-back play-off losses against Spain) in terms of their ability to execute a game-plan. There has never been an issue with work-ethic, but after years of banging their head against brick walls to no avail, they are now finding more refined ways of dismantling the obstructions in their path.
On this occasion, Chloe Rollie’s eye for a gap, along with Lisa Thomson’s ability to pick an angle and go at it with pace and power, were the key weapons in the team’s armoury – although that dynamic duo were ably assisted by a number rumbustious forward displays from the likes of Jemma Forsyth, Jade Konkel (even though she did not seem to be fully fit after an ankle injury kept her out of last week’s game against England) and Emma Wassell. The cool-headed leadership of the midfield axis of scrum-half Sarah Law, stand-off Helen Nelson and captain Lisa Martin at inside centre was also important.
This result means that Scotland have won two matches in a Six Nations campaign for the first time since 2006, and they were also only an injury time try away from securing a draw against Ireland. There is still a long way to go before they can even countenance giving France and England a real run for their money, but this shouldn’t detract in any way from the progress which has been made since the dark days when the team finished winless at the bottom of the table in six consecutive campaigns between 2011 and 2016.
Head coach Shade Munro, who deserves a huge amount of credit for the instrumental role he has had in revolutionising this team’s fortunes, expressed mild frustration afterwards that his charges had not managed to extend their lead during a dominant final 20 minutes – but it is easy to forget just how rare genuine try scoring opportunities used to be for this team. The composure they need to convert these promising positions into something more tangible will surely start to become instinctive if the team can continue to generate openings at the rate they did in this encounter.
“Their understanding of the way we are trying to play is improving. Its not a quick fix and the fact that we’ve managed to have more games than we would normally have – with the World Cup qualifiers and then against Aysleford Bulls before the Six Nations – has certainly helped because we’ve learned with every game,” said the coach.
“I think in the past they have been beaten heavily and just brushed it under the carpet rather than face what went wrong and learn from the experience. You have to look at England and France games as well to learn what they are doing and assess whether we can do it better. And you could see them do that this year – against France they just couldn’t cope with it and major cracks appeared, whereas against England they at least forced them to have to play really well to score in the corner rather than just run through the middle. The more experiences they have like that, the better they will get – regardless of results.”
With that in mind, it is a shame that Scotland will miss out on this summer’s World Cup in Ireland because that would undoubtedly provide a golden opportunity to build on the significant progress which has already been made. Munro ruled out the possibility of his team picking up some more game time as warm-up opposition for that event, indicating that the players could probably do with a rest – but said that he will push hard to make sure there is a full calendar in place for next season with a couple of Autumn test matches and a few games against top flight English clubs.
For Munro, there is surely a sense of vindication after being moved into this job by the SRU during the summer of 2015 after 12-years at Glasgow Warriors. It was a rather spurious award for his role in helping the side lift the Pro 12 title that year. The former Scotland lock is a laid-back and affable character, but he has shown in the last two seasons that there is a substance to his coaching which he has not always been given credit for in the past.
“They are very young and they seem pretty keen, which as a coach is what you want. They are actually really good people: if they hadn’t fronted up then that would have been pretty difficult for me, but I feel I owe it to them to help bring them on. I was never in this to lose games but I was under no illusions as to how difficult it was going to be – and it has taken a couple of years to get to this stage where we are managing to win, so hopefully we can keep improving and start winning by a bit more,” he said.
Munro might be too modest to discuss his contribution but his captain was more than happy to sing the coach’s praises.
“We know this has been building the last couple of years with Shade coming in and revolutionising the way we think. To be in an environment like this is fantastic, but it is just a start because winning is addictive and we want more,” said Martin.
“We now feel confident with the ball in hand and sometimes our execution is off but that will come. We’re a young bunch, the average age of our squad is 21 or 22 so we’re not going to have many girls dropping out, and we are all dedicated to the cause and to helping get the next generation inspired.”
After a sluggish start, the home side grabbed this match by the scruff of the neck to edge their noses ahead on the stroke of half-time, and they never looked in real danger of surrendering that advantage during a disciplined second-half.
Rollie was the catalyst to Scotland’s change in fortunes after they had fallen behind to two tries from visiting hooker Melissa Bettoni. The Scottish full-back launched an audacious counter-attack from just a few yards out from her own line in the 24th minute, which established the positive energy which powered the home team’s opening try a few moments later when Lisa Thomson made a typically abrasive midfield burst and then sent forward a beautifully weighted grubber kick into the corner, which allowed Rollie to once again demonstrate her pace and instinct when outstripping the Italian cover defence to dive over in the corner. Lana Skeldon slotted the conversion from just inside the touchline for good measure.
Thomson and Rollie had another impressive carry each before the first half was out, as Scotland worked their way back to deep inside enemy territory and earned three very kickable penalties in quick succession. On the first two occasions the bold decision was made to kick into the corner, and then as the clock moved past the 40-minute mark they opted for the scrum.
Martin said afterwards that the possibility of taking the safer option of three points was easily dismissed in light of the team’s belief in their own ability to turn pressure into points.
“It was pretty instinctive. I spoke to Sarah Law about it and we felt we had dominance in the set-piece so if we just kept our composure and work through the phases then we were going to get over the line,” she explained.
That confidence was shown to be well-founded when Helen Nelson and Jade Konkel linked to send Rollie in for try number two, and set up another Skeldon conversion which edged the Scots ahead.
Scotland weathered a minor storm at the start of the second half, but managed to batten down the hatches and see it out, before working their way back up the park and producing a number of promising attacks. A break up the left touchline from Rhona Lloyd had the Italians back-pedalling frantically; another mesmerising counter-attack from Rollie also caused panic in the visiting ranks; as did a beautifully weighted kick into the corner from Martin which almost sent Eilidh Sinclair in; and an excellent midfield break from Martin sliced the Italian’s wide open.
There was one particular onslaught on the Italian line around the 70 minute mark which went through several ferociously contested phases, and although the Scots could not quite unlock the door to the deadlock which had developed by that stage, the really important thing was that the hosts were controlling possession and territory during what would otherwise have been a tense final quarter.
“The determination has always been there but the belief is now there 110 percent. We all know we can do it if we stick in. The first 20 minutes were a bit shaky, but once we got in the groove of how we wanted to play there was no looking back. That belief has transformed us as a team. It is not just a case of a couple of us thinking we might do it – every single player in this team now believes we are going to do it,” said Rollie.
“In every training session now we know the standard we expect of ourselves, and if we feel that dropping then we stop and address it and pick ourselves back up to the level we want it to be.”
Scotland: C Rollie; M Gaffney, L Thomson, L Martin, R Lloyd; H Nelson, S Law; T Balmer, L Skeldon, K Dougan, E Wassell, D McCormack, J Forsyth, L McMillan, J Konkel. Subs: L Park, H Lockhart, L Smith, S Bonar, L O’Donnell, E Sinclair.
Italy: M Furlan; M Sillari, M Cioffi, S Stefan, M Margatti; B Rigoni, S Barattin; E Cucchiella, M Bettoni, M Ferrari, I Locatelli, A Trevisan, I Arrighetti, E Giordano, L Cammarano. Subs: L Gai, M Este, P Zangirolami.
Scotland: Tries: Rollie 2; Cons: Skeldon 2.
Italy: Tries: Bettoni 2; Con: Stefan.
Scoring Sequence (Scotland first): 0-5; 0-7; 0-12; 5-12; 7-12; 12-12; 14-12 (h-t) no scoring in second half
Player-of-the-Match: Plenty of candidates but Chloe Rollie’s eye for a gap provided the impetus for this victory after a scratchy opening 20, and she continued to light up the game almost every time she got her hands on the ball.
Talking Point: Huge progress by the national women’s team but can this inspire real growth in the age-grade and domestic games?