Scotland back, but not with a bang
As the clock ticks ever more into 2019, it brings with it another Six Nations tournament. Last year’s iteration of the contest barely felt like last week, yet here we are already past game week one. A closely fought Wales v France match opened the competition, with the Welsh narrowly beating out the opposition in a 24-19 score line. And on Saturday, it was the turn of Scotland as they took on 3-years-running ‘wooden spoon’ winners Italy at BT Murrayfield. Ryan Nixon reports.
Gregor Townsend opted for a few new names in the squad, both in the starting XV and the bench; namely 25-year-old centre Sam Johnson starting at 12 and Leicester Tigers hooker Jake Kerr on the bench alongside Stirling-born Gary Graham, son of former Scotland prop, and now-Hawick RFC coach, George Graham.
He also placed Blair Kinghorn out on the wing alongside old favourite Tommy Seymour with the recognisable reliance of Stuart Hogg at fullback. The forwards remained fairly unchanged from the Autumn test series, with Allan Dell, Stuart McInally and WP Nel in the front row and names such as Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner and of course Ryan Wilson returning.
Italy on the other hand only handed out one debut on the day, to second-row David Sisi. He was joined in the forwards by recognisable names like Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrrea Lovotti and stalwart Sergio Parisse who, after Saturday’s outing, beat out Brian O’Driscoll as the man with the most appearances in Six Nations history, and now sits just 13 appearances away from Richie McCaw’s record of 148 rugby union test caps. The back line’s most recognisable names were perhaps scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani and Tommaso Allan, commonly known as Tommy Allan, formerly of Scotland Under-20s.
It was all Scotland for the first ten minutes of the game, as the team seemed to be finding their feet on home ground, with the back-line working well together. Good defence from the Italians however allowed them to gain possession and make progress into Scotland’s half, and a string of two or three penalties followed – one coming from a dangerous tackle on Sergio Parisse, which led to a kick for posts just in the 10th minute.
Tommaso Allan would be the man to take the penalty, slotting the ball fairly comfortably between the posts to put the visitors 0-3 up.
Scotland weren’t to take this lying down however, as Finn Russell responded in the 11th minute with an inch-perfect crossfield kick finding Blair Kinghorn on the wing, who sprinted over the try line carefree, putting the Scots In a 5-3 lead.
A busy ten minutes followed, and opportunities arose for both Tommy Seymour and Italian fullback Jayden Hayward, but it would be Kinghorn who made the most of his chance just ten minutes after his first, as Stuart Hogg set Kinghorn up after a scrum to dive over in the corner for his second try of the game. Captain Greig Laidlaw added the conversion for two extra points as the score line sat at 12-3 right through to halftime.
Halftime came and went, and Scotland would be the ones to kick off the second half, and they hounded the Italy defence with an early chance from Hogg eventually snuffed out as Sam Johnson’s grubber kick failed to find anyone.
Mere minutes passed though, and Hogg was at it again, albeit somewhat controversially, as Russell put through a nicely-weighted kick, which bounced over the try line, and Hogg just managed to get his fingertips on the ball for downward pressure. Many were dubious as to the referee’s decision to award the try without the use of a TMO, but nevertheless, this just left Laidlaw to convert again for a 19-3 score line.
And yet again in the 54th minute, Kinghorn’s name popped up on the scoresheet. The Edinburgh youngster was left to charge through the Italian defence with a quick dummy after a Jamie Ritchie offload, and he was left clear to dive over the try line for his hat-trick. Once again Laidlaw added the conversion to pull the Scots further ahead.
Scotland weren’t finished just yet though, as substitute Chris Harris, barely on the pitch, was provided with an offload from Josh Strauss who originally appeared to be going over himself. Harris however scrambled over the line for his first try for his country, converted this time by Russell, as Scotland led comfortably with a 33-3 score line.
This is where the ‘wheels started to come off’ for Scotland though as Simon Berghan was shown a yellow card in the 71st minute, leading to an Italy try within the next 60 seconds – the scorer being Guglielmo Palazzani, with Allan adding the conversion having returned to the field.
Scotland did respond powerfully though, with Hogg going on an incredible solo run through the Italian defence to score one of his most impressive tries to date, but an obstruction in the build-up ruled out the score and Italy were safe.
The visitors took the reigns in the final ten minutes although, as Federico Ruzza took off from a ruck, and found substitute Edoardo Padovani, who was free to run in Italy’s second try. A rushed conversion failed to go over though, as the Azzurri were desperate to close the gap between the teams.
They done well in this mission, with sloppy defending from the Scots letting Michele Campagnaro race clear in a two-on-one situation against Hogg, who couldn’t have done anything either way, as Campagnaro passed to Angelo Esposito, who touched down for Italy’s third try in ten minutes, leaving the score at 33-20.
Scotland were lucky that the final whistle came two minutes later, as Italy looked dangerously close to getting their losing bonus point and four-try bonus point. The game came to an end with the score line at 33-20, despite many fans no doubt being convinced that a 33-3 final score would be the comfortable victory the Scots needed just ten minutes earlier.
Afterwards, Gregor Townsend said: “We maybe weren’t smart enough when we were a man down, still putting a lot of bodies into rucks – which had been a successful policy up until that point – but when the ball came out they had an extra one or two players to exploit the space. Maybe it’s not a bad thing – it’s the first game of the tournament.” he added.
“We’re playing the number two team in the world next week, and then we’re going away to a place where we’ve not won in 20 years…so feet on the ground is good for us. We started with a solid win, scoring five tries is a credit to the players but we know that next week’s challenge Is huge.”
Scotland face Ireland next week once again at BT Murrayfield, scheduled for a 14:15 kick-off.