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How did Scotland secure their first win after 14 months of heartbreak?

By Will Owen
Scotland v Italy 6N 1

A ball knocked-on just shy of the try line. An overthrown lineout on your own team’s five metre line. A tackler getting their head on the wrong side. There are certain things that just never look right on a rugby pitch, and a small part of you dies inside every time you see it. You never want to witness it ever again.

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Nothing fits this description more than the heartbreaking sign of one of international rugby’s best and most inspiring captains, Rachel Malcolm, trying to hide her tears after yet another antagonising loss in which her squad battled to oblivion. It’s impossible not to cheer for Scotland, because for once you just want to see Malcolm celebrate on the full time whistle, and not talking about another game that got away.

And finally, finally on Saturday we got to hear Malcolm deliver her “we just won a game we weren’t favourites to win and I’m absolutely buzzing” speech. Scotland so richly deserve to finally have a win to their name, and Malcolm was one of the shining lights of the Test match. Wales and England will be grateful that they didn’t have to face Lisa Thomson and Jade Konkel-Roberts, who both had absolute stormers against Italy.

So how did Scotland pull it off? What did they get right that they didn’t in the first three rounds? Well, one factor was their kicking game, backed up by their brutal defence. Let’s have a quick look at how the likes of Helen Nelson booted Scotland into the right areas of the park.

If you have the game in front of you, the first half is littered with great moments of Scotland kicking: five minutes in, Thomson puts in a pearler which forces flanker Isabella Locatelli to fluff her lines, on seven minutes Nelson booms a boot downfield which the Italy backfield mess up, and on 18 minutes, this happens:

The Scottish backline pose the threat of a genuine attack. Meryl Smith runs a dummy-switch line off Nelson, and the rest of the backline hold their width and depth. Smith’s dummy line means Italy’s left winger, Aura Muzzo (out of shot on the right-hand side) has to maintain her place on the wing in case of a linebreak.

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Fullback Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi, meanwhile, is considering joining the defensive line in case Scotland play wide. Nelson boots the ball downfield and it bounces on the Italian 22 and into Ostuni Minuzzi’s hands.

Fran McGhie is over Ostuni Minuzzi like a rash and chops her to the deck before she can launch a counter attack. Italy do well to clear out Thomson, who is in an excellent position over the ball, but the ball is slow and Scotland are immediately on the front foot.

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Scrum-half Sofia Stefan is swarmed as she scoops the ball up, as it is called as out by the referee. Italy are suddenly more vulnerable than ever – in their own 22 with both halfbacks at the bottom of a ruck. Italy would ideally kick from here, but they have to play another phase infield to get Stefan back on her feet. Scotland apply excellent linespeed and catch them behind the gainline.

Stefan gets the ball back to kicker Beatrice Rigoni, but Scotland apply great pressure. Thomson times her run from behind the back foot, meaning she is already at full speed by the time Stefan has passed the ball. She leaps to charge Rigoni down, narrowly missing, and likely shaving a couple of dozen metres off her kick. Mairi McDonald also applies good linespeed so Rigoni has no opportunity to run out. The ball goes into touch just beyond the 22 for a Scottish line-out.

Bear in mind, this 30 metre net-gain comes for two reasons: one being Scotland’s attacking shape off the scrum. Their depth and width were so on-point that Italy were convinced Scotland were about to attack. The other reason is Fran McGhie’s kick chase, followed up by the Scottish pack’s work rate. It’s not easy to go straight from a scrum, to 40 metres upfield, then sprint to get off the line; but it grants results like this when it happens. Outstanding pressure by Scotland.

Now, speaking of the Scottish pack, let’s have a look at what made them dangerous when they got into these positions – specifically, let’s look at Louise McMillan’s opening try.

After a good run by Coreen Grant, Scotland recycle the ball quickly and set their shape perfectly. Konkel-Roberts takes the ball as lead carrier, with McMillan as her inside latcher and Rachel McLachlan as her outside tip-on.

What’s crucial to this try being scored, though, is Nelson in the boot. Nelson has played virtually everything through herself so far in the game – most phases result in the ball going through her hands, and she remains animated and loud in behind. Konkel-Roberts arcs outwardly as soon as she catches the ball, seemingly tucking the ball into her left arm.

But no – Konkel-Roberts isn’t tucking the ball, but instead twisting her entire body so she can shift the ball on to McLachlan, who is running a beautifully straight line. Because of the genuine threat of Nelson in the boot, Italy’s outside defender Gaia Maris (just in shot on the far right of the above picture) stands considerably wider than she normally would, allowing McLachlan much more space to run in.

McLachlan gets a 1v1 carry against Gaia Maris. She’s a tremendous physical presence, and it’s in Maris’ best interest to go low and get her to ground, and hope someone else can cover the offload.

McMillan runs a terrific support line – the space is on McLachlan’s right, but she anticipates the way Maris will tackle and runs the most convenient support line, allowing for the easiest offload. McMillan doesn’t need to run for the space on the right, because on the left she still only has Michela Sillari, a centre, to beat. McMillan backs herself to win the collision, drive Sillari back five metres and score – which is exactly what she does.

The headline of this try is the tip-on pass by Konkel-Roberts. Watch the try back and take note of her body language. It’s extremely convincing that she’s going to carry – and why wouldn’t she? She’s arguably the best carrier in the tournament. Nelson’s line and communication in the boot creates the slight disconnect from Maris, and Scotland link up brilliantly to score.

Scotland have always had the potential and the players to be a genuine threat in the Six Nations, and hopefully this is a sign that they are developing a strong kick pressure game. Look at how Wales benefited in their first two games from implementing a defensive game that doubled up as an attacking weapon.

There is rightfully a lot of talk about the Six Nations not yet being competitive enough – but if the Scottish defence can keep improving at the rate it has in the last two weeks, you’d hope they’ll pose more of a challenge to the top two in a couple of years. Above all, you’d hope to live in a world whereby Rachel Malcolm only ever sheds tears of joy post-match.

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