DAVID BARNES @ Scotstoun Stadium
A THIRD quarter blitz set-up a comprehensive win for Italy, and left Scotland licking their wounds at the end of a tough age-grade Six Nations campaign which started promisingly with the team picking up two bonus points against England and then tasting victory for the first time in 15 matches against Wales, before they slumped to three heavy defeats on the bounce.
The lowest point of the championship was undoubtedly the 82-7 hammering suffered against Ireland last weekend, and head coach Kenny Murray said he was pleased with how his team had bounced back from that harrowing experience.
“The boys responded well in that first half,” he said. “We’d talked about work-rate and physicality, and I thought the boys imposed themselves well on Italy.
“Defensively we were good, we really shaped their attack, but losing our tight-head prop [Eben Cairns] to injury early on put our set-piece under pressure, and in the second half we made too many unforced errors, couldn’t keep hold of the ball, and they absolutely dominated us from a set-piece perspective. You just can’t play rugby without a set-piece.
“Once you get into that cycle of giving away scrum penalties and having to defend driving mauls, it just takes it out of you. If you look at the size of the Italians, they were just bigger men than us, that’s the reality, and we just struggled against that.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t win at least two games over the course of the tournament,” he added. “If we’d been two out of two that would have been a brilliant start for us, so to be 36-31 up against England with eight minutes to go and not find a way to win is disappointing.
“Against France and Ireland, we were well beaten and there’s a lot of learning from that. They were just miles better than us. And again today we were outmuscled. It highlights where we are as an under-20s team and as a rugby-playing country … we need to be better, we need to develop our players better to compete at the highest level, and at the moment we are a fair but off that.”
The team’s next target is the Junior World Trophy in Kenya in late July, which Scotland must win in order to secure promotion back into the top flight World Championship for 2024.
“The support and commitment from rugby has been excellent,” Murray added. “I’m here in a new role as head of player transition, we’ve got coaches in to work with the players, so we’re definitely on an upward ladder. But the big thing is that we need to be better at producing players and developing players to come and compete at this level.
“Today we were down to pretty much our last prop available in Scotland to play at tight-head, and other countries don’t have those problems. So, we need to develop players younger because physical development doesn’t start at 18, it needs to start at 14 or 15.
“All these guys [in the Scotland under-20s squad] are already joined up with Super Series [Super6] clubs for the ‘Sprint’ competition, so that will help us during the April/May window, before they come back in to camp for the World Trophy during the summer.
“I’m absolutely not going to criticise the players, who have worked hard in training and their commitment on and off the field has been excellent. They want to play rugby, but at the moment we can’t impose ourselves physically on this level of opposition. They are a hard-working group who want to do well and that’s going to stand us in good stead for Kenya.
“From Scottish Rugby perspective, we want to be dining at the top table of World Rugby at all levels. The senior team have had a good year, finishing just behind the top two teams in the world in their Six Nations, and we want to be there or thereabouts as well. It is going to be tough at the Junior World Trophy, because teams are getting better, but we’re going there to get ourselves back into the Junior World Championship.”
With a strong wind at their back, Scotland got off to a flying start as they looked to exorcise the demons of last weekend’s hammering at the hands of Ireland. Richie Simpson made the most of scrappy ball off a rapidly back-pedalling home scrum to sniff out a gap on the blindside, winger Alessandro Gesi – younger brother of Simone, who debuted for the senior Azzurri team on Saturday –managed to intercept the offload only to inexplicably flip a loose pass 15 yards backwards to nobody, and Dan King didn’t need to break stride as he cantered onto the loose ball and onwards under the posts.
Simpson added the conversion, but Italy bounced right back with classy full-back François Carlo Mey collecting the restart and streaking 50 yards downfield before earning a ruck penalty which was sent to the corner, setting up a line-out maul which thundered over the for the visiting team’s opening points scored by Giovanni Quattrini.
The scoreboard operator barely had a second to draw breath before Scotland struck again through a ruck penalty which was turned into three-points by Simpson, making it 10-5 to the hosts with 10 minutes played – but then the scoring dried up.
The remainder for the half was battled out in the middle third of the park, with neither team managing to control possession for a long enough to really stress their opponents’ defence.
Ben Afshar did have a chance to break the stalemate five minutes before the break with long-range shot at goal after Jacopo Botturi was penalised for being slow to roll away from the tackle just inside his half own, but the Scotland scrum-half’s effort drifted to the left of the posts.
And Scotland threatened again a few minutes later through Geordie Gwynn on the left wing, but his chip ahead did not bounce favourably and Sebastiano Battara was able to snuff out that attack.
Given that Italy had the wind at the back after the break, and that they have won the second half of all four of their previous matches in this Six Nations campaign, it was always doubtful that Scotland’s five point lead was going to be enough. A better conversion rate of just one score from five entries into the Italian 22 during that opening 40 would certainly have been helpful.
It took the visitors just three minutes after the game resumed to push their way into the lead for the first time in the match with No 8 Botturi muscling through four tackles to score under the posts, setting up an easy conversion for Simone Brisighella.
Italy struck again through scrum-half Battara at the back of a totally dominant scrum following a brilliant outside break from full-back Mey.
It was now pretty much one-way traffic, and Botturi again burst past four tacklers for what he thought was his second try of the match, only to be called back for a double-movement. It was only a temporary reprieve for the increasingly bedraggled hosts, with tight-head Marcos Francesco Gallorini muscling over for the bonus-point try.
Gallorini struck again just after the half hour mark when he picked up at the back of a ruck on the SAcottish line and leapt over a pile of bodies to touch down.
A combination of Italy clearing their bench, and also picking up two yellow-cards in quick succession – against Filippo Lavorenti for a an upright tackle which led to a clash of heads with Afshar (mitigated down from a red because of a change of direction) and Lorenzo Elettri for playing the ball on the deck on his own line – curbed the visitors’ momentum during the final quarter.
Scotland picked up a consolation score with eight minutes left through Will Robinson on the right, but Italy had the final say, when replacement tight-head Nicholas Gasperini muscled over in injury time.
Scotland: D King; K Johnston (W Robinson 66), D Munn, K Yule ( B Salmon, 50), G Gwynn; R Simpson, B Afshar (C Clare 70); C Davidson (M Surry 50), J Blyth-Lafferty (C Tait 50), E Cairns (R Deans 25), E Erskine (H McLeod 62), R Hart, L McConnell, S Derrick, J Morris (E Guy 52).
Italy: F Mey; A Gesi, D Passarella, N Bozzo, F Bozzoni (L Elettri 41); S Brisighella (G Sante 64), S Battara (L Casilio 70); D Aminu (R Bartolini 62) G Quattrini (N Gasperini 64), M Gallorini (A Artuso, 64) A Mattioli, P Turrisi ( E Pontarini 68), C Berlese (F Lavorenti 66), D Odiase, J Botturi.
Scotland: Tries: King, Robinson; Con: Simpson 2; Pen: Simpson.
Italy: Tries: Quattrini, Botturi, Battara; Gallorini 2, Gasperini: Con: Brisighella 4, Sante.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 5-0; 7-0; 7-5; 10-5 (h-t) 10-10; 10-12; 10-17; 10-19; 10-24; 10-26; 10-31; 10-33; 15-33; 17-33; 17-38; 17-40.
Yellow cards –
Italy: Lavorenti (70-mins), Elettri (72 mins)