STUART BATHGATE @ Scotstoun Stadium
SCOTLAND lost to Italy for the second time in three months in this opening match of their Six Nations campaign, but the difference in their performance here should provide them with some genuine grounds for optimism. There was little positive to be said about their 38-0 loss to the same opponents in Calvisano back in November, but here the breakdown was much improved, the scrum was also a lot better after some initial difficulties, and the defence was good enough to keep the home side in the game long after the Italians should have put it to bed.
The high error count in attack testified to a continued lack of composure, but Italy should get a lot of the credit for the pressure they exerted when the Scots were in possession. They restricted Hannah Smith’s ability to play with the freedom she had enjoyed in her last outing against Spain, and can be satisfied, too, with the patience they showed to eventually claim the try bonus point with the last play of the game.
From an Italian point of view the main shortcoming was an inability to kill off the contest long before the end – a failing that could prove fatal if repeated in the coming fixtures. For Scotland, there were enough positives here to convince them that they can do better in their two forthcoming home games – starting next Friday when they are up against Ireland, the team they beat in Donnybrook last year in their only win in the Championship.
“For me, the scrum was a big improvement,” Shade Munro said when asked to assess the positive aspects of his team’s performance. “The amount of work the players have been putting in paid off in that game.
“There was a huge effort. In the first half we had to defend on our line for a time and did that really well. In the second half, our play got a wee bit more predictable and the Italians defended really well. Eventually we just ran out of steam. We left a couple of tries out there.
“We made a few mistakes, and that handed a lot of possession to Italy. But the defence was excellent, and the commitment was tremendous.”
Italy drew first blood after five minutes from a passage of play which began with a scrum inside their own half. A break then a chip ahead was mopped up by the home defence, but Mhairi Grieve’s attempted clearance was charged down. The scrum-half regathered but had to go into touch, and from the ensuing lineout the Italians calmly mauled for five metres before Ilaria Arrighetti finished off the move. Michela Sillari converted to make it 7-0.
The difficult start for Scotland became tougher still when Megan Kennedy was yellow-carded for failing to roll away in the tackle as the Italians pressed for a second try. The attacking side opted for the scrum, unsurprisingly given their early domination of the set piece, and when the ball came out to the backs a score looked certain, only for Sofia Stefan to fail to catch a pass from Sara Barattin.
Unable to relieve the pressure, Scotland had to defend constantly until back to their full complement, when, after Kennedy had been instrumental in securing clean ball from a scrum, they mounted their first real attack. However, just as they were beginning to pile on the pressure, Italian centre Beatrice Rigoni knocked on while attempting to intercept a pass, then hacked downfield in an offence which the referee failed to spot.
As half-time approached, Scotland grew in confidence – all the more so after Italian lock Valentina Ruzza was sent to the sinbin for repeated offending by her team. No 8 Elena Giordano followed her for another offence right in front of the posts, and instead of going for goal Grieve opted to run the penalty. She was vindicated a few phases later when Sarah Bonar celebrated her return to the team following injury by crashing over. Lana Skeldon added the two points to level and the whistle blew immediately, ending a half in which the Italians must have expected to build up a comfortable lead.
Sarah Law, another player making her comeback after a lengthy injury, replaced Grieve after five minutes of the second half. Italy had the confidence to attack despite being two women short, but Scotland’s work at the breakdown was exemplary, with loosehead prop Lisa Cockburn being particularly effective.
The visitors crossed the line just before Ruzza returned, but they were held up by an increasingly defiant defence. The score was only delayed, however, and in the next attack openside Giada Franco forced her way over between the posts, with Sillari again converting.
Scotland fought hard to get back on terms, and Chloe Rollie came into the game more after being fairly subdued by her standards. It was Franco who had the real cutting edge, however, and after 72 minutes she broke clear in midfield then put Beatrice Rigoni in for the clinching score, again converted by Sillari.
With the game won, Italy still had the bonus point to chase, and they got it in the final minute when Giordano scored off the back of a rapidly advancing scrum, with Sillari keeping up her 100 percent record with the conversion.
Scotland: C Rollie; E Musgrove, H Smith, L Thomson (c), A Sergeant; H Nelson, M Grieve; L Cockburn, L Skeldon, M Kennedy, E Wassell, S Bonar, R Malcolm, R McLachlan, S Cattigan. Subs: J Rettie, K Dougan, M Forsyth, S Anderson, N Howat, S Law, L Martin, R Lloyd.
Italy: M Furlan (c); A Muzzo, M Sillari, B Rigoni, S Stefan; V Maddia, S Barattin; G Giacomoli, M Bettoni, L Gai, V Ruzza, G Duca, I Arrighetti, G Franco, E Giordano. Subs: S Turani, E Serilli, S Tounesi, V Fedrighi, L Cammarano, F Sbernia, J Busato, C Sarasso.
Scorers: Scotland: Try: Bonar. Con: Skeldon.
Italy: Tries: Arrighetti, Franco, Rigoni, Giordano. Cons: Sillari 4.
Scoring sequence: 0-5, 0-7, 5-7, 7-7 half-time, 7-12, 7-14, 7-19, 7-21, 7-26, 7-28.
Yellow cards: Scotland: Kennedy. Italy: Ruzza, Giordano.
Referee: N O’Donnell (England).