After 12 games of heartbreak and several incredibly tight losses, Scotland broke their streak with a commanding performance against Italy. It was made all the more impressive by coming against the Six Nations team that, apart from England and France, they have most struggled against in recent years, and a team ranked six places higher in the world rankings at kick off. Here are some talking points from Saturday’s win.
All power to the forwards
Scotland’s forwards decided to not only live up to the cliché that forwards win matches but also take the other half of the phrase and decide by how much as well. It wasn’t just that they hoovered up all the tries, they carried tirelessly throughout, with a stat late in the game noting they had made almost twice as many dominant carries as Italy, despite the excellent work of Italian back rowers Giada Franco and Sara Tounesi to combat them. Jade Konkel-Roberts (19), Evie Gallagher (14) and Lana Skeldon (16) topped the carry stats, with Konkel-Roberts making an impressive 93 metres from hers, often seemingly dragging several Italians with her. Last week, in her first game back from injury, we saw Konkel-Roberts make a big contribution in defence, but probably a little less in attack than we’re used to. This week it was back to her brilliant best (with a deft little pass setting up McMillan’s try to boot). Excitingly, Scotland seem so much less reliant on her carrying to generate go-forward, which meant she could be even more effective as it was less predictable. Every single forward had a brilliant game and this paragraph would be twice as long if I summed up why. And they played so well up until minute 80 that there was no reason to substitute any of them, except for an HIA period. Alongside immense tackling and carrying, the scrum and line out were solid, with occasional notes of spectacular, and the driving maul consistently proved a weapon. It was a brilliant performance from the pack from start to finish.
Defensive defiance and territorial gains
All of this would have been futile however if Scotland had struggled, as they have in recent years, with Italy’s fast-paced, offloading and tip-passing attacking game. This was a bit of a concern coming in because Scotland’s defence had not been at their normal standards last weekend, with tackle percentage dipping to 77% against France. Here it was back to a much more solid 86% meaning that the Italian attack could rarely get going, and there was a lot of good scramble defence on several of the occasions it did break through.
A further way that Scotland thwarted the Italian game was by winning the territory battle, with 56% territory and crucially, nearly 75% more time in possession in the opposition half than Italy managed. We’ve seen Scotland’s kicking game improving over the past year, and this game really showed the importance of having several kicking options – in particular Helen Nelson on her 50th cap, last week’s 50th capper Lisa Thomson and full back Chloe Rollie. This experienced trio meant that it was hard for Italy to get much foothold in Scotland’s half, except through the odd Scotland loose pass or from a penalty. Italy seemed to be kicking off the back foot a lot more than they prefer, and rarely had an attacking platform. Whereas in the past Scotland have struggled with Italy’s playing style, this time they showed a game plan designed to combat the opposition, played to their own core strengths and executed effectively.
Keeping it simple for the win
This game plan was relatively simple but it was understandable that it was the case. We possibly saw a little less of some of the more interesting attacking plays we have seen in other games, but it was the win that mattered here and relying on executing well rather than experimenting to secure the win was the right plan. The confidence boost will be enormous from this, it means that it removes any lingering or subconscious doubts from the back of the mind about when that next win is going to come and stops those questions from the outside too. It was a result built on hard work, ferocity, diligence and execution and was what this team deserved for always fighting these past months, whatever the match situation. It shows the team and the wider world that even if the opposition starts to come back at them, they don’t need to overplay or force things, they can double down on their strengths and get themselves back on top. This team has had to show a lot of resilience and belief, but now hopefully we get to see how these qualities can contribute to victory, and not just see them in adversity.
Success, but still room to grow
The exciting thing is that this still felt like a performance that can be improved upon. It feels like nit-picking but there are still some changes and fixes for the next game. The most disappointing thing about the French loss was that five tries came off a counterattack from a Scotland kick when the defence didn’t quite set quick enough in response. The same happened again for Vittoria Vecchini’s try after Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi’s break – it was a brilliant run but it was also against a defence that hadn’t yet set up after a clearing kick from a scrum, even though Ostuni Minuzzi had been delayed a couple of seconds before she set off having to control the ball with her feet. It made sense not to play too loose against Italy when we saw what could happen with their counter-attack, but it did mean a lot of attack went through the forwards when one of the back three was standing in acres of space. Of course, that’s not a problem when it’s effective, and it was in this game, it’s just that Rollie and Fran McGhie in particular have been a sight to behold this Six Nations when they’ve had the opportunity to run at defenders. Hopefully against Ireland we can see the excellent foundations from the Italy repeated, with a bit more of the exciting flair in attack that we have had glimpses of in past matches.
One more day to seize
Despite a spirited defensive display against a disjointed England, Ireland have had the toughest Six Nations of all the team, and Scotland will be wanting to show they can put together back-to-back wins, in what is tracking to be a record crowd for a Scotland home game. There is a huge prize in sight, with a bonus point win guaranteeing at least 4th place in the tournament table (3rd place is a mathematical possibility but unlikely), and a place in WXV2 later in the year. That will mean an autumn tournament in a group containing the likes of Italy, the 4th placed team in the Pacific Fours (likely USA or Australia), plus probably Japan, Fiji and South Africa. Quality opponents, all of whom lit up the recent World Cup at times, but also teams that an improving Scotland can target wins against, allowing them to build momentum across this next World Cup cycle. After a year and a bit of hurt on the pitch, things are looking very, very exciting.