IT may have been underwhelming, and it was arguably undeserved against an inspired Italian side, but it was a victory nonetheless for Scotland as they ended the Six Nations with three wins out of five.
Gregor Townsend’s team were behind for most of the game, and only rarely showed the spark of genius they managed in their previous wins over England and France, but if this was a step backwards in terms of their performance, it surely represented progress when it comes to strength of character.
After all, we have seen many Scotland sides of seasons past wilt under the pressure in Rome. Not only did this group withstand an Italian onslaught, they also overcame their own shortcomings – thanks in part to their growing maturity, in part to their superior fitness.
Had the Italians led by a couple of scores going into the closing stages, they might just have had enough left in their legs to hold on for their first win of the campaign. But, after striking first in the second half to go 24-12 up, they conceded a score with 20 minutes to go and another with 10 to play. The latter one put the home team a point behind, and although Italian hopes were rekindled when a penalty put them back in front, Greig Laidlaw responded with three points of his own a couple of minutes before the end.
You cannot win every game by a massive margin, nor can you always play at your best. When you don’t, the best thing to do is win any way you can.
Italy took the lead after six minutes through a Tommy Allan penalty, awarded after the Scotland defence had strayed offside. It was no more than the home team deserved for a promising start, but they only stayed in front for four minutes, as Scotland hit back decisively in their first real attack.
Nick Grigg did the initial damage with a midfield break, then Tommy Seymour carried on up the left. With the referee playing advantage as Italy tried to kill the ball when camped on their own line, Hamish Watson threw a long pass to the unmarked Fraser Brown on the right, leaving the hooker an easy run to the line. Greig Laidlaw missed the conversion attempt.
That score did not affect the self-belief with which the Italians had begun, and Allan soon had them back in front with a simple score. A lineout drive set up good position in the Scots 22, and when the ball went down the line the stand-off all too easily ghosted through the defence, with Huw Jones having ill-advisedly drifted out to leave him the space.
Allan added the two points to his own score to take his side into double figures, and it was not long before the tally was extended. Just after the midway point in the half, again after the forwards had done the hard yards, Allan saw a gap behind the Scottish defence as Stuart Hogg had moved up to the front line. The No 10 sent a clever grubber kick beyond the defence, and full-back Matteo Minozzi beat Watson to the race to touch down. Allan converted to put Scotland a dozen points behind.
Scotland needed to regain their composure and hit back in a measured fashion, and they did within two minutes. Hogg’s penalty to touch provided the platform, and the lineout maul saw first Brown and then John Barclay as the ball-carrier, with the captain scoring and Laidlaw converting.
The visitors retained the upper hand right up to the verge of half-time, but with the clock in red Italy were awarded a penalty in their own half. Allan found touch, and a concerted drive on the Scotland line began. The defence held firm, however, and the action ended when Italy were held up five metres out. It was a morale-boosting conclusion to the first 40 for Townsend’s team, and the coach made a radical change for the start of the second half, replacing his starting front row with Jamie Bhatti, Stuart McInally and Zander Fagerson.
Another boost came within two minutes of the restart, when Sebastian Negri burst through and touched down only for the score to be chalked off for a knock-on, but the Italians were not to be denied, and got their third try in the 45th minute. Fagerson lost possession forward in midfield, and Jake Polledri had the strength to hand off a Ryan Wilson tackle before offloading to Allan. The stand-off could hardly believe his luck as he raced to the line, and when he converted his own try Italy had a 12-point lead again.
Paying the Price
Peter Horne and Richie Gray came on as Scotland looked for something to spark a momentum shift, and when Finn Russell was forced off with injury a couple of minutes later by a head knock, that meant Laidlaw had to move to 10, with Ali Price coming off the bench to slot in at scrum-half.
Price immediately injected some extra tempo into the attack, and just inside the final quarter they got the try that put them back into contention, with Sean Maitland finishing off well from a long pass by Laidlaw as penalty advantage was being played. Laidlaw’s conversion made it a five-point game, and real questions were being asked of the Italians for the first time since they had briefly fallen behind.
For a time the home defence held up well, but with 10 minutes to play the breakthrough came. A long lineout maul, with McInally and Barclay to the fore, took Scotland deep into the opposition half, and when play was recycled wide, Stuart Hogg was there to finish off. Laidlaw had provided the scoring pass, and he also provided the extra points to put his team in front.
It’s Laidlaw to the rescue again
The lead did not last. With five minutes left, Jonny Gray was penalised for not rolling away, and Allan was on target from 40 metres. Three minutes later, however, the Italians halted a maul illegally, and from the edge of the 22, Laidlaw was on target again.
Italy had one more chance to attack, but Braam Steyn lost the ball forward. Price put the ball into the scrum, watched as the clock went red, then booted it out to secure the win. Sighs of relief all round were the order of the day from Scotland, while some Italian players were close to tears after putting so much into the game and yet again coming away with nothing other than a losing bonus point – and of course the Wooden Spoon.
Italy: M Minozzi; T Benvenuti (J Hayward 59), G Bisegni, T Castello (C Canna 74), M Bellini; T Allan, M Violi (G Palazzani 67); A Lovotti (N Quaglio 59), L Ghiraldini (O Fabiani 77), S Ferrari (T Pasquale 60), A Zanni (B Steyn 53), D Budd, S Negri, J Polledri (G Licata 67), S Parisse.
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones (P Horne 53), N Grigg, S Maitland; F Russell (A Price 55), G Laidlaw; G Reid (J Bhatti 41), F Brown (S McInally 41), W Nel (Z Fagerson 41), T Swinson (R Gray 53), J Gray , J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson (D Denton 67).
Scorers: Italy: Tries: Allan 2, Minozzi. Cons: Allan 3. Pens: Allan 2.
Scotland: Tries: Brown, Barclay, Maitland, Hogg. Cons: Laidlaw 3. Pen: Laidlaw.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-5, 8-5, 10-5, 15-5, 17-5, 17-10, 17-12 half-time, 22-12, 24-12, 24-17, 24-19, 24-24, 24-26, 27-26, 27-29.
Referee: P Gauzere (France)