By Rory Baldwin
A wins a win, for all that
After a very exciting first half of rugby from both teams, the entertainment levels dropped off as both sides focused on the nervy business of winning and the match tightened up. If Scotland had somehow managed to maintain the level of the opening twenty minutes for the whole match and chalk up an improbable cricket score, they probably would not have learned as much as they did having to constantly keep Italy at bay, losing players to the sin-bin and with the threat of another potentially devastating loss never far away.
It was very positive to see a Scotland side keep their cool and go out to win the game at the end, rather than grimly clinging on to a precarious lead and perhaps losing it to an Italian side who caused Scotland a fair amount of trouble inside their own 22. Their reward was Stuart Hogg‘s tribute to the Toony flip, a clear win on the scoreboard and their biggest points haul in a Six Nations match.
Fix all the set pieces – not just one
The work to fix a leaking lineout paid off in Rome. There were far fewer errant throws from Ross Ford, and Richie Gray is finally getting up to attack opposition ball. As the scrum is now a powerful source of penalties and possession, the lineout needs to be just as reliable to maintain it. With the Jonny Gray back to his ball-carrying best, Scotland look a lot more useful when they are attacking with the ball rather than defending their own line, so retaining possession is a must. On Saturday Italy starved them of ball in the second half and constant defending means giving away penalties. Other teams will look to repeat this tactic.
There is one set piece though that continues to cause trouble, namely the restart. Cotter and his management team must howl in frustration every time a kick-off is fumbled and the opposition are handed a quick chance to come right back at them. If they can get all three tightened up, Scotland would become much more of a force and momentum would be less likely to shift away from them. Which means I can keep more of my hair.
The midfield needs work but the choices are positive
Few Scottish pundits would deny that Mark Bennett has an important place in the future of Scotland’s back line but three games in and he’s still looking a little rusty – don’t forget his first game back from injury was the Calcutta Cup – and he’s not been the force he was at the World Cup. During the game there was a tweet yesterday along the lines of “imagine what you could do with two or three Stuart Hogg‘s in your team.” The same age as Hogg (23), with good hands and quick feet, Bennett undoubtedly has the potential to be at least one of them but it wouldn’t be a major surprise if for now the midfield was reshuffled again.
Cotter is just about back to the luxury position of having to pick 2 from Bennett, Matt Scott, Alex Dunbar, Pete Horne and Duncan Taylor so he should go purely with form. With Taylor the player with the greatest form and fitness and Pete Horne continuing to look sharp, Horne’s distribution skills might be used to keep the French on their toes out wide. He most often plays at 12 for Glasgow and Taylor is adept at 13 but leaving Taylor inside to defend might present a less tempting channel 10-12 for the French runners to attack. Alternatively Bennett could be offered back to Glasgow for the weekend’s PRO12 game at home to Cardiff to sharpen up.
Did the back row balance just sort itself out?
“The Johns” Hardie and Barclay were again brilliant for Scotland (that may or may not catch on as a nickname to rival the Killer Bs), but there have been question marks at No 8 all tournament. Ryan Wilson stepped in at the last minute when David Denton pulled out late with a groin injury and put in a determined performance in the first half. Often criticised for poor discipline and bad timing – off the field too – Wilson showed what he can offer with some strong carries and a good pair of hands to put John Hardie in for his try.
With Denton’s offloading and passing one area of the game he’s been working on at Bath, it was a nice counterpoint from Wilson. Although his intensity level dropped off slightly (with the rest of the team) in the second half, from the bench Josh Strauss played his second game in as many days having turned out for Glasgow on Thursday night. He still provided physical ball carrying against the tiring Italians, and Denton might struggle to displace either of them in two weeks time.
More of the same, please
The win was vital just to allow all those young players to taste victory in the Six Nations, but really it all counts for nothing unless the team can back it up in two weeks against stuttering France. Scotland have fallen at home to worse French teams; learning to beat Italy is something worse Scotland teams than this one have achieved.
If this team wants the talk of “improvement”, “fronting up” and “having the confidence to win” to be taken seriously, then they need to do it against the teams they don’t usually beat: teams like France and Ireland. Which is convenient, as they have a chance to do just that with France visiting Murrayfield a week on Sunday, and Ireland in Dublin to finish just six days later. Neither team are having the strongest tournament and what we are truly seeking is a Scotland team confident enough to seize on opportunity when it counts the most.
And if the swashbuckling France that everyone misses so much do somehow turn up, well at least it could be a hell of a game.