At the DAM Health Stadium
RELIEF, said Rachel Malcolm, was the predominant emotion after this game, and anyone who has followed Scotland over the past year and more would know exactly how the captain felt.
After 12 defeats in all competitions since they beat Colombia in a World Cup qualifier in February 2022, Scotland had won at last. What is more, they did it in style, bouncing back from a 55-0 mauling at the hands of France six days earlier to run in five tries against Italy.
Not that it was entirely plain sailing. For a time in the second half, when Italy closed from 24-7 down to 24-21, there was a clear and present danger that this TikTok Women’s Six Nations match would be snatched out of Scotland’s hands. That would have been hard to swallow for a team who have suffered so much adversity during that long losing run, but thankfully they had the strength of character to see the game out.
Granted, the Italians contributed to their own downfall when Sara Seye was sent off for making head contact in a tackle on Jade Konkel-Roberts. But that incident came after Scotland had already reasserted themselves and were on the attack, deep in opposition territory.
“The overwhelming emotion is relief at the moment,” Malcolm said afterwards. “If I’m honest, this last year has been hell in many ways for our group.
“We have gone through some tough times and we have stuck together through thick and thin. Not many people believed in us, but we kept believing.
“That was one of the most complete performances we have had as a squad. The belief was there and now we have got this win we can push on and keep going.
“One hundred percent we felt we were never going to let that game slip. We have shown in glimpses in this championship how well we can play and we have talked about seizing the day and seizing every moment. We never stopped believing.”
After withstanding some early Italian pressure, Scotland took the lead when Louise McMillan finished off from close range after a penalty had been sent to touch. The Italians missed a glorious chance to reply when Alyssa D’Inca knocked on a kick ahead when unmarked, but they eventually replied when Giada Franco touched down and Michela Sillari’s conversion put them ahead. However, crucially, Scotland regained the lead before the break from a perfectly executed lineout maul, with Lana Skeldon getting the touchdown.
That score came just a minute after Giordana Duca had been yellow-carded for a team offence, and the Italian lock had barely returned to the pitch when Scotland got the first score of the second half. It appeared that the chance had gone for the home team when Helen Nelson failed to find touch with a penalty, but the Italian clearance was charged down, the attack resumed, and eventually Leah Bartlett barged her way over.
Nelson’s conversion made it 17-7, and the prop and stand-off soon repeated the double act to stretch the Scots advantage to 17 points. Then came the comeback, inspired in large part by veteran scrum-half Sara Barratin, who came off the bench and instantly injected a far smoother rhythm into her team’s play.
First Sara Tounesi finished off from close range, then Vittoria Vecchini ran in her team’s third try all too easily after some missed tackles in midfield. Two more conversions from Sillari narrowed the home team’s lead to three points, and the pressure was on.
But then came the dismissal of Seye, just four minutes after she had come off the bench. The relief of which Malcolm spoke was palpable at that point, and doubly so when Skeldon scored her second, from a lineout drive.
The Italians applied some late pressure, but it was dispelled by two dominant scrums from Scotland in which Christine Belisle played a vital role. Belisle’s front-row colleagues Skeldon and Bartlett may both have got on to the scoresheet, but the tighthead prop’s contribution was just as important – above all in the set piece during that late spell when Italy threatened to make what would have been a heartbreaking comeback.
Scotland are at home again in next Saturday’s final round of games in the Championship, when Ireland are the visitors. A bonus-point victory will guarantee them fourth place ahead of both the Irish and the Italians.
Scotland: C Rollie; C Grant, L Thomson, M Smith, F McGhie; H Nelson, M McDonald (C Mattinson 59mins); L Bartlett, L Skeldon, C Belisle, J Konkel-Roberts (E Donaldson 64-77), L McMillan, R Malcolm (capt), R McLachlan, E Gallagher.
Italy: V Ostuni Minuzzi; A Muzzo (S Barratin 54), M Sillari (E Stevanin 72), B Rigoni, A D’Inca (F Granzotto 69); V Madia, S Stefan (capt); G Maris, V Vecchini, L Gai (S Seye 60), V Fedrighi (A Cassaghi 73), G Duca, S Tounesi, I Locatelli (A Ranuccini 63), G Franco.
Scotland: Tries McMillan (12mins), Skeldon (36, 68), Bartlett (47, 52). Cons Nelson 2.
Italy: Tries Franco (30), Tounesi (58), Vecchini (61). Cons Sillari 3.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0; 5-5; 5-7; 10-7 half-time; 15-7; 17-7; 22-7; 24-7; 24-12; 24-14; 24-19; 24-21; 29-21.
Yellow card: Italy: Duca (35).
Red card: Italy: Seye (64).
Referee: Aurelie Groizeleau (France).