TO CONCEDE three tries over the course of a whole game is a disappointment. To concede three in the space of 10 minutes has to be the occasion for some soul-searching.
But, after witnessing that late lapse from his Scotland side in their 33-20 win over Italy, Gregor Townsend was able to interpret it in a positive light. The game had been well won by then, and the fact that Simon Berghan was in the sinbin at the time provided some extenuating circumstances.
Above all, however, the head coach saw the exposure of Scotland’s shortcomings as a useful reminder to his players of the hard work they still need to do before Ireland come to Murrayfield next Saturday. And, asked if his squad felt more downhearted because of those late scores against them than they should have been after a solid win, he suggested that feeling that way could also be helpful.
“Yes, and maybe it’s not a bad thing,” he said. “It’s the first game of the tournament and we’re playing the No 2 team in the world on Saturday. We’re then going to a place [Paris] where we’ve not won in 20 years, then playing the No 3 team in the world [Wales], then going to a place [Twickenham] where we haven’t won since 1983.
“Feet on the ground is good for us. We’ve started with a solid win and scoring five tries is a credit to the players. But we know next week’s challenge is huge and we have to get the focus right almost immediately. The players will start to absorb the game plan and what we need to do better to win next week.
“I thought the beginning was really good. We had a try disallowed, we were dominating territory, then we did slow down a bit. We look at ourselves first. That wasn’t good enough that we weren’t able to keep the energy up. There were a lot of scrum resets and the pace of the game dropped.
“That was the message at half-time, that we had put pressure on Italy not just through our decisions but our energy. We did that really well in the third quarter.”
Reasons to be cheerful
While debutant centre Sam Johnson and stand-off Finn Russell played particularly well, winger Blair Kinghorn deserved especial praise from his coach after scoring Scotland’s first hat-trick in the Championship since Iwan Tukalo back in 1989. “I was very impressed,” Townsend continued. “He’s got a temperament where it seems that nothing fazes him.
“He started his first game over in Dublin last year, scored in the corner and made two line breaks in addition. He scored a try in Argentina in the summer and three today and he’s the quickest player in our squad.
“He’s been playing regularly at full-back but we know he’s someone who can play very well on the wing. He’s got the attributes of a full-back but he’s also very quick. That’s a positive for us and it obviously adds to the depth, and it will be a tough selection next week if or when Sean Maitland becomes available.”
Jonny Gray and Peter Horne may also come into contention for selection against Ireland after missing this game because of injury, while Fraser Brown could be close to a return from long-term injury. Zander Fagerson, who along with Brown trained as part of the squad last week, may need a game or two for Glasgow before being considered for the national squad – though he too seems well on course to come back at some stage in the tournament.
Still, while the injury list is clearing up, this match produced new worries about Willem Nel, who came off early in the second half with a tight calf, and Sam Skinner, substituted in the first with an ankle injury. First indications are that Nel could be OK to play against Ireland, but there is a bigger doubt about the lock-cum-flanker.
“He showed really good bravery on the field,” Townsend said of Skinner. “He went over on his ankle and he’ll get a scan on it. He injured his ankle at the beginning of the season and missed two or three weeks, so we’re hoping it’s no more serious than that.
“We thought he was going to be off straight away, it looked like it was a heavy knock, but he carried on for another 10 minutes and his last contribution really helped the team. He got up and won a kick-off and we then got in behind the Italian defence.
“It’s obviously disappointing for him: he’s been playing really well so far in his Test career. It meant a shuffle in our pack and I thought Josh [Strauss] did a lot of good things when he came off the bench and Ryan Wilson played well too.”
Italy, too, have had their share of injuries and illness, and they were forced into a change not long before kick-off when scrum-half Tito Tebaldi was ruled out with a knock. That meant Guglielmo Palazzani had to start at No 9 despite an illness which in other circumstances might well have stopped him travelling from Italy in the first place.
“ I could say Gulo Palazzani – the ball was slow at the bottom of a ruck,” Conor O’Shea said when asked how critical he felt he should be of his team’s performance. “I nearly had to carry him off the plane on Wednesday when we got here, he was so ill. Then we lose Tito before the kick-off, and we say ‘Gulo, 80 minutes please, thank you very much, get to the breakdown quickly’.
“It’s not an alibi, it’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. You can’t buy heart like that. We had nothing else, and he went the full 80.”
Despite their late recovery, the Italians’ limited contribution has to be a concern to O’Shea, who has yet to enjoy a win in the tournament as their coach. “We hadn’t the ball – pretty simple,” he added when asked to explain the defeat. “It felt like were defending the whole time in the game. I’m disappointed, because if we’d held on to the ball we’ve got players who can do damage.
“We know the challenge. We know we’ve started a process that I think everyone can see is doing the right things – and we have a lot to do.”