The sun was shining on Rome yesterday but for the quality of rugby on display it might as well have been pouring rain and howling a gale.
Scotland turned up with only the wooden spoon to win and they duly obliged. You can’t doubt that these players did not want to lose, but the only team that seemed capable of doing anything about it were Italy.
The first half was uneventful as both sides struggled to find a rhythm or any sort of useful possession. Scotland gave away too many penalties, or perhaps Alain Rolland awarded too many. Regardless, the Italians dominated the possession and got the first points. They could have had plenty more with two further penalties and a charged down from Kris Burton (the Dan Parks-lite of Italy), while most of Scotland’s opportunities were out of kicking range of Greig Laidlaw. Even the one he confidently put over to send the teams in at half time at 3 apiece. Unfortunately there wasn’t parity in the team numbers as seconds before, Nick De Luca had thoughtlessly booted the ball from between the hands of scrum half Gori.
You could see from the look on De Luca’s face that a yellow card was the last thing he wanted to give away given his rollercoaster ride in this year’s Six Nations, but sadly Rolland is no great lover of romance, sentiment or anything intangible like that. If he spots it, you’re going. And so Scotland faced the start of the half down a man.
They battled well to hold Italy off but eventually the numbers proved the wee edge Italy had been seeking to get round Scotland’s nuggety defence, Venditi bursting through Hogg’s inneffectual tackle to score. From then on Italy held firm while Scotland struggled to put any sort of shape or pace on the game. No sooner had De Luca come back on than Jim Hamilton went to the bin for another silly indiscretion around a ruck.
In the face of this, even traditionally reliable men like Gray or Denton toiled to make headway. Gray was replaced for the lively Al Kellock early, but even as Italy started to tire and Scotland got the bounce of the ball (or should that be the rub of Rolland?), the home team did enough to prevent Scotland from scoring anything more than an additional penalty.
While hugely frustrating, late substitution to the starting XV Jon Welsh bolstered the scrum and did not give away any silly penalties that I saw and if he can make more impact in the loose, Chunk’s place could finally be under threat. Stuart Hogg still had little ball, but showed brief snatches in attack and was much better under the high ball and with his clearance kicks. The defence was largely sound, but discipline, line-out and tactics were mostly dreadful. Fix one thing, and another thing goes wrong.
It was looking fairly rosy before the tournament began, as it always does. It stuttered, but then came (mostly) good against France. We had an exciting new defence coach coming in, talent was being unearthed here and abroad, the SRU seemed like things were going in the right direction and tries were being scored. Okay, the results weren’t coming in but we’d put up with that for a wee while, in return for more performances like that. In return for progress.
Now we have a coach who may be making progress but the results point to the contrary, an untried and possibly unsuccessful coach in charge of Glasgow next season and a team that looks like it has regressed severely. The SRU with the handling of the announcement over Lineen and Townsend took a backwards step too.
In short, doom and gloom.
Where next for Scotland? We’ll be watching.
Keep an eye out for our tournament roundups next week and ongoing league and Heineken Cup coverage.