DAVID BARNES @ Netherdale
THIS was a tough, but hopefully valuable, lesson for Carl Hogg’s young Scotland side in the importance of remaining switched on and disciplined throughout the full 80 minutes, and a demonstration of just how quickly a game can swing away from you against international opposition if you relax the throttle – even slightly – when in the driving seat.
Scotland struggled in the first half and were perhaps fortunate to be trailing by only eight points at the break, but they came firing out of the blocks at the start of the second period to grab the lead through two converted tries for captain Connor Boyle and second-row Charlie Jupp. With the visitors down to 14-men, the match was there for the taking, but they couldn’t sustain it and slowly but surely the game slipped away from the hosts.
“There was a huge amount of energy, a huge amount of endeavour, but I thought we just lacked accuracy at times, especially in our exit zone when we put ourselves under pressure by spilling ball and not executing well enough to get out,” lamented Hogg.
“We showed ourselves the template of how we want to play in that 20-minute period after half-time, when we were nice and composed in our own half, then got out and put pressure on them, got multi-phase and put some speed on the ball … we looked a good side. But we didn’t do that consistently over the 80-minutes.
“We came into the game wanting to play at pace, but our high error count made it difficult to maintain the level of intensity we were looking for. And the really frustrating things is that a lot of our errors came from the basic things – whether it was restarts, accuracy at the base, accuracy at line-out time …”
Italy were already leading 0-3 thanks to an early Paolo Garbisi penalty, when disaster struck in the 15th minute. Roan Frostwick’s laboured box-kick was charged down by visiting tight-head prop Matteo Nocera, who then collected the loose ball and galloped home unchallenged. Garbisi missed the conversion but added his second penalty six minutes later to open up an 11-point lead for the visitors.
Scotland battled their way back into it, with Boyle, Sam Grahamslaw and Jack Blain carrying well, and they eventually got themselves something to take into the break when an offside penalty allowed Ross Thompson to dissect the posts.
Whatever was said under the stand at half-time clearly had the desired effect because within 30 seconds of the restart the Scots had helped themselves to their first try, with Boyle barrelling over after replacement hooker Ewan Ashman had made a big indent in the Italian defence.
Scotland were right back on the front foot practically straight from the restart, with Grahamslaw rampaging back up the park, and after another intervention from Boyle, it was Jupp who wriggled over from close range, with Thompson converting for the second time inside the space of three minutes.
Italy’s troubles deepened when powerful number eight Antonie Koffi – one of their top performers in the first half – sent to the sin-bin for some skulduggery at a ruck.
Scotland continued to press. Cameron Anderson made good ground amid a flurry of dummies, but his centre partner Robbie McCallum lost possession as he attempted to expose space on the left, and Italy were able to gather themselves.
Edoardo Mastandrea out-jumped Rufus McLean to claim a cross-kick but couldn’t hold onto the ball with a clear run to the line beckoning. Scotland failed to exit from the scrum and ended up conceding a penalty for not releasing on the deck which was kicked to the corner and the rumbled over the line, with away team hooker Niccolo Taddia grounding the ball. Garbisi’s conversion edged the Azzurri into a one-point lead.
By the 58th minute, Italy had replaced their whole front-row, and there was an ominous moment when the away scrum not only shoved their hosts off the ball but trampled right over the top of them.
Italy stretched further clear when replacement centre Federico Mori burst onto a short ball and over the line, but before Garbisi could add the conversion (which he eventually did with no problem), there was then a 10-minute break while replacement hooker Luca Francechetto was treated on the pitch before being stretchered off with a nasty looking ankle injury.
The break came at a good time for Scotland and they fired back into it with McLean, Boyle, Kwagga van Niekirk and Cameron Henderson all punching holes, before Blain came off his wing to burst the Italians open on a diagonal run, and he then released McLean for a try which returned it to a one-score game.
However, the Scots then gave away an obstruction penalty at the restart and then lost Thompson to the sin-bin for slowing the ball down. They were let off the hook when the ball squirted out the side of a scrum on the five-yard line, but the Scots break-out – which was spearheaded by Blain – only reached halfway before being turned over, and this time the Italians were not handing out any reprieves, with centre Matteo Moscardi squeezing over the corner, and Garbisi firing home the tricky conversion to finish the scoring.
There is no let up for Hogg and his side with Ireland – who will be on a high after beating England at home in the Six Nations opener – due at Netherdale next Friday night.
“As I said to the group, it is a test of character now,” concluded Hogg. “We’ve been beaten by a good Italian side who played a lot more rugby than I thought they would, and it isn’t going to get any easier next week. But we know that if we can replicate that 20-minutes after half-time for longer periods then we will be successful.
“When we get it right we look a good rugby side, but we didn’t get it right over the 80-minute period, which is the frustrating thing. We probably had a 20-minute window of what this group can achieve. The challenge now is to push that out to 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 minutes of a game.”
Scotland: O Smith (R McLean 32); R McMichael (N Chamberlain 75), C Anderson, R McCallum, J Blain; R Thompson, R Frostwick (K McGhie 75); S Grahamslaw, F Scott (E Ashman 39), M Walker (E McLaren 61), E Johnson, C Jupp (C Henderson 64), K Van Niekirk, C Boyle, J Mann (R Bundy 56).
Italy: J Trulla; E Mastandrea (G Da Re 64), M Moscardi, D Mazza (F Mori 51), M Mba; P Garbisi, A Fusco (G Piva 26); M Drudi (G Lucchesi 58), N Taddia (L Franceschetto 58-64), M Nocera (F Alongi 49), N Stoian (M Butturini 66), T Parolo, M Finotto (A Maurizi 26), D Ruggeri, A Koffi.
Referee: A Jones (Wales)
Scotland: Try: Boyle, Jupp, McLean; Con: Thompson 2; Pen: Thompson
Italy: Try: Nocera, Taddia, Mori, Moscardi; Con: Garbisi 3; Pen: Garbisi 2.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-3; 0-8; 0-11; 3-11 (h-t) 8-11; 10-11; 15-11; 17-11; 17-16; 17-18; 17-23; 17-25; 22-25; 22-30; 22-32.
Yellow cards –
Man-of-the-Match: Italian stand-off Paolo Garbisi got the official award, but from a Scottish perspective, captain Connor Boyle was both composed and abrasive, with several impressive carries. An honourable mention should also go to loose-head Sam Grahamslaw who was also a handful with the ball in hand.
Talking point: This Scotland team look good when they are hit their stride but they now know just how unforgiving an environment they are operating in. Can they smooth out the rough edges in time for Ireland next Friday?