DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
IT wasn’t exactly a performance which will have South Africa and Ireland quaking in their boots, but that wasn’t really the purpose of this first pre-World Cup hit-out. The Scotland coaching team will be quietly satisfied that 23 squad members got some useful full-blooded game time after seven weeks of intense training, with no major injury concerns evident at the full-time whistle, and a win is always good for morale – no matter how scrappy.
They surely would have hoped for a bit more spark from their team, but they have three more games to shake off the rust and build the required ‘connections’ (to use one of head coach Gregor Townsend‘s favourite words/concepts). Job done and Scotland move on to the second of their four warm-up games against France, also at Murrayfield, next weekend, knowing that they are in pretty decent shape but still have plenty scope for improvement, which is where they want to be at this stage.
No player who wasn’t pretty much guaranteed selection before will feel that they have decisively made their case for being part of the final 33 to fly to France at the start of September. Darcy Graham scored two tries and was always a threat (as we expect), Ben Healy (named player-of-the-match) was assured without setting the heather alight at stand-off, likewise Ollie Smith at full-back. The set-piece was dominant, while skipper Rory Darge and Matt Fagerson were both industrious and won a few shrewd turnovers.
After soaking up some really pressure, Scotland threatened first when Darcy Graham chased down Ben Healy‘s kick, but under a deluge of rain and pressure from the last Italian defender, the little winger lost his footing after hacking ahead into the scoring zone.
The big drama during the opening quarter of an hour was a renegade seagull who initially stayed rooted to the Murrayfield turf as players swarmed around and over him, and then set off on an inebriated aerial tour of the stadium, before planting himself back down on the grass just outside Scotland’s 22. Eventually, some bold ground staff managed to wrap the confused bird in a white cloth and remove the poor soul from danger, prompting some light-hearted booing from the crowd who had become rather attached to the avian pitch-invader.
20 minutes gone at Scottish Gas Murrayfield & best performer in white so far is this guy… pic.twitter.com/tYcVxxO2kI
— Graham Love (@glove931) July 29, 2023
After a period of pressure, Scotland eventually took the lead on 13 minutes when they kicked a penalty to the corner and sucked the Italian defence in with the line-out drive, before Healy sent an inch-perfect cross-kick rightwards for Graham to gather and touch down.
There was a slapstick passage of play when Ali Price‘s loose pass on Italy’s 22 was hacked down field, with Ollie Smith and Chris Harris both sliding into gather but failing to hold on to the slippery ball, before Smith was successful at the second time of asking inside his own in-goal area, conceding a scrum-five, establishing the field position from which Azzurri sated-off Tommaso Allan opened his team’s account with an offside penalty a few moments later.
Scotland didn’t really threaten again until the 35th minute when a penalty kicked to touch was once again gave them an attacking platform, the line-out maul was once again deployed, and this time an intricate passing move released Graham on the right, but the Hawick man couldn’t quite escape the Italian cover defence.
Not to be outdone, Italian winger Money Ioane demonstrated that he can be a threat with ball in hand just before the break when he skinned Graham on the outside before Smith managed to save his team-mates blushes. Italy did have the last say of the half when Allan stroked home a long-range scrum penalty from wide on the left to make it 6-5 to the visitors at the break.
Scotland changed their entire front-row on 45 minutes and immediately won a collapsed scrum penalty slap-bang in from of the posts, which allowed Healy to restore his team’s slender lead.
An excellent 60-yard kick into the corner from Smith was enthusiastically chased by Graham, who charged down Martin Page-Relo‘s attempted clearance, but replacement hooker Stuart McInally couldn’t quite secure the ball before it disappeared over the dead-ball line.
It was only a brief reprieve for the Italians, with Graham snatching his and Scotland’s second try of the afternoon by bursting onto Ali Price‘s inside pass and propelling himself over the line.
Italy struck back just after the hour mark after a period of pressure culminated in a try in the left-hand corner for Monty Ioane off a cut-out pass from Allan, who also added the conversion to make it 15-13.
That’s as close as Italy got, with Healy kicking another scrum penalty on 74 minutes and then Josh Bayliss finishing off perhaps the most cohesive passage of play in the match in the final minute to see the Scots comfortably home.
Scotland: O Smith; D Graham (B Kinghorn 71), C Harris (C Redpath 56), S McDowall, K Steyn; B Healy, A Price (J Dobie 56); R Sutherland (J Bhatti 45), G Turner (S McInally 45), M Walker (J Sebastian 45), S Skinner, S Cummings ( C Henderson 63), L Crosbie (J Bayliss 69), R Darge, M Fagerson.
Italy: L Pani; P Bruno (A Garbisi 50), T Menoncello, L Morisi (F Mori 56), M Ioane; T Allan, M Page-Relo (G Da Re 63); F Zani (D Fischetti 50), E Faiva (M Manfredi 56), P Ceccarelli (F Alongi 59), D Sisi (E Iachizzi 56), A Zambonin, F Ruzza, M Zuliani (L Cannone 50), T Halafihi.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Scotland: Tries; Graham 2, Bayliss; Con: Healy 2; Pen: Healy 2.
Italy: Pen: Ioane; Con: Allan; Pen: Allan 2.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0; 5-3; 5-6 (h-t) 8-6; 13-6; 15-6; 15-11; 15-13; 18-13; 23-13;