THIS was a bizarre – and pretty horrendous – experience for Scotland. In appalling weather conditions, they couldn’t cope with Italian physicality, and struggled to adapt their game-plan when it became apparent that the waterlogged pitch and greasy ball was making it impossible to play their usual brand of high-tempo, smash-and-grab rugby.
Significantly, there was a 55-minute suspension in action towards the end of the first half because of concerns of a lightning storm. Scotland were clearly unhappy about the state of the pitch when they came back out from the changing rooms, and those misgivings were evident in their lack of bite during the next half hour – during which time they coughed up two decisive tries.
A late rally brought Scotland back to within striking distance, but, ultimately, it was too little, too late. They will now face Fiji in an 11th-12th place play-off decider on Saturday, knowing that defeat in that match will mean relegation out of the World Championship next year.
“[It was] just a very challenging set of events, logistically in terms of coming off for a 50-minute delay,” said frustrated head coach Carl Hogg afterwards. “It was very challenging from a rugby perspective but also in terms of a mental perspective. It was challenging for both sides to be fair. But because of the conditions there was essentially no running game.
“You’re in a situation where there’s standing water on the field and I’m concerned for my players’ welfare. It’s their World Cup, their opportunity to show what they’ve got and it just descended into a situation where no rugby was played at all. It became an arm-wrestle, a scrum and kick fest. We’ve got a situation where we’re off for 50 minutes and the obvious solution seemed to me to delay it for 24 hours and start again but that didn’t seem to be an option.
“I raised my concerns to the match commissioner and said I’ve been involved in senior rugby for 30 years and never been in a situation where you you get taken off and sit in a dressing room for what was supposed to be 20 minutes and it ends up being 50. That’s challenging for the players but ultimately there was a game of rugby of a fashion.”
Turning his attention to his team’s performance, Hogg highlighted a lack of experience as crucial to his team’s undoing.
“A lot of our guys just don’t get exposed to high-level games,” he added. “Making decisions in these tight, high-pressurised games. Look, it’s relatively easy to play against a New Zealand and throw caution to the wind. Managing games where it’s critical only comes with experience.”
Scotland took an early lead when Italy conceded a succession of penalties, allowing stand-off Ross Thompson to guide his team into the corner, and from a close-range catch-and-drive it was Ewan Ashman who got the ball down.
But Italy struck back when centre Matteo Moscardi sent a grubber past Scotland’s push defence and full-back Jacopo Trulla didn’t break stride as he gathered then showed great balance to slalom past Cameron Anderson and Lomond MacPherson on his way to touching down under the posts.
Italy then snatched the lead thanks to another smart kick, with stand-off Paolo Garbisi angling the ball in behind and Moscardi collecting before releasing winger Edoardo Mastandrea with an immaculately timed pass.
Scotland were on the rack, so the enforced suspension in play offered some much needed respite, but when the action resumed they were clearly unsettled, and they fell further behind before the break, with a dominant Italian scrum setting the platform for winger Damian Mazza to scoot over in the corner.
Because of the hold-up, the teams changed ends without a break at half-time, and Scotland continued to look vulnerable, although they were beginning to battle back into contention as the match reached the hour mark. However, it was virtually impossible to play with the pace and continuity required to break down a bigger, more-powerful Azzurri outfit.
Then Italy delivered the killer blow, in the 61st minute, when their totally dominant Italian scrum got Scotland back-pedalling and Garbisi waltzed through midfield with almost indecent ease.
Scotland continued plugging away as the match became increasingly bad-tempered. Replacement back-row Antoine Koffi saw yellow for failing to roll away in the tackle, and the boys in blue capitalised when Ashman got the ball down after another close-range line-out drive was propelled into the scoring zone.
That offered a glimpse of hope, and straight from the restart Scotland managed to get Jack Blain into space on the left for a 60-yard romp to the line, with 50 seconds left on the clock as he touched down. Thompson’s rushed touchline conversion was not a bad effort but drifted wide, meaning a converted try was required to salvage a draw which had appeared an impossibility just four minutes earlier – tie the match and invoke extra-time.
The belief, and community of purpose, which had been so obviously lacking through so much of the first 79 minutes, was now pulsating through Scotland’s veins. They worked their way through 14 punishing phases from the restart – which was no mean feat in the conditions – but in the third minute of injury-time the ball went to ground, and Italy were able to exhale a huge sigh of relief.
Scotland: C Anderson (M Davidson 55); L MacPherson, R McMichael, R McCallum, J Blain; R Thompson, R Frostwick (M Scott 69); M Walker (A Nimmo 76), E Ashman, E McLaren (W Hurd 63), E Johnson, C Henderson (R Bundy 60), M Sykes (K Van Neikerk 68), C Boyle (T Leatherbarrow 63), T Marshall.
Italy: J Trulla; E Mastandrea, M Moscardi, D Mazza, C Lai; P Garbisi, A Fusco (L Citton 69); M Drudi (L Franceschetto 54), A Marinello, F Alongi, N Stoian, A Zambonin, A Chianucci (A Koffi 54), D Ruggeri, M Finotto
Referee: Damon Murphy (Australia)
Scotland: Try: Ashman 2, Blain; Con: Thompson 2.
Italy: Try: Trulla, Mastandrea, Mazza, Garbisi; Con: Garbisi 3.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0; 7-0; 5-7; 7-7; 7-12; 7-14; 7-19 (h-t) 7-24; 7-26; 12-26; 14-26; 19-26.
Yellow cards –