When in Rome … well, Scotland do what they generally do.
At times excitable and exhilarating, creating lasting memories in the City of Eternal Love.
At others execrable and exasperating, with displays to fill the Trevi Fountain with tears.
The first 20 years of the Six Nations have brought five victories and five defeats from their 10 trips to the Italian capital. Each fell into certain trademark categories.
Exhibit A: 2000. Italy 34-20 Scotland.
The first match of the new expanded Championship. Italy’s grand entrance. Were they ready to mix it with the big boys on the big stage? Si!
This was probably the most comprehensive victory by either side in their 10 Rome meetings.
Ian McGeechan was back at the helm but a third of the Scottish team had changed from the one which took the final Five Nations title, with Gary Armstrong, Alan Tait and Paul Burnell now retired.
It was a catalogue of calamity. Kenny Logan missed four simple kicks at goal, two in the first 10 minutes. Captain John Leslie, only just back from a long injury lay-off, lasted 13 minutes.
Gregor Townsend’s drop-goal and a Gordon Bulloch try put the visitors 10-6 up but indiscipline reigned and Italy fly-half Diego Dominguez, taking to the Six Nations stage at 33, kicked the Scots where it hurts.
Six penalties, the conversion of Gianpiero de Carli’s late try and three booming drop-goals – still a joint record for a Championship match – adorned a 29-point haul.
The Stadio Flaminio lapped it up. Martin Leslie’s late try kept the margin to mere humiliation. Five Nations champs to Six Nations chumps in 80 bonkers minutes.
2004 (Italy 20-14 Scotland) wasn’t a whole lot better. The final score flattered the visitors, who trailed 20-9 before Simon Webster’s last-minute score.
Italy’s try had a touch of fortune. A line-out throw rebounded over Scotland’s line and Fabio Ongaro was adjudged to have got it down, even if TV replays suggested otherwise.
But an inexperienced Scots side could have few complaints after a display dogged by set-piece struggles and horrendous handling.
“Our mistake rate was unacceptable,” said coach Matt Williams, which summed up a campaign – indeed, much of his time in charge – that brought a first Six Nations wooden spoon.
Scotland’s second Six Nations whitewash in 2012 was sealed with another desperate defeat (Italy 13-6 Scotland). A first at Italy’s new Stadio Olimpico home but a third in a row in Rome, and a second under Andy Robinson, in what proved to be his final Championship match in charge.
Allan Jacobsen could at least take some consolation. The prop, who had started the losses in 2004, 2008 and 2010, failed a fitness test in the warm-up (Jon Welsh taking his place), and thus avoided joining Mike Blair as the only Scot to be on the losing side four times in Rome.
THE LATE ITALIAN JOBS
Something of a speciality.
There was a sense of history repeating in 2002 (Italy 12-29 Scotland). John Leslie was absent through injury again. One of two Six Nations debutants, flanker Andrew Mower, was sin-binned early on after a scuffle with Mauro Bergamasco. Chris Paterson hooked his first shot at goal horribly wide.
Step forward Brendan Laney, the ‘kilted Kiwi’ parachuted into the side the previous autumn. Assuming the kicking duties from Paterson, ‘Chainsaw’ racked up a 24-point individual haul, still a Scottish record for the Championship.
Laney kicked the Scots into a 15-12 lead with 10 minutes left. An opportunist intercept try from Townsend followed before Laney’s coup de grace, dummying two defenders and racing in at the left corner.
Laney got a slap in the face from an Italian fan – who was trying to prize away his jersey – for his troubles as he left the field, but he might have won over a few sceptics in his adopted country.
The 17-point winning margin remains Scotland’s biggest on Italian soil.
There wasn’t quite the same flourish in 2006 (Italy 10-13 Scotland), but it was another nerve-jangler, sealing the Scots’ joint-best return of three wins and a third-place finish in Frank Hadden’s first season.
A Paterson try and Gordon Ross drop-goal nudged the Scots ahead at half-time but it was level heading into a tense final quarter.
With three minutes left, Jason White’s thumping tackle on Andrea Lo Cicero saw the prop penalised for holding on and Paterson stepped up, amid a hail of whistles, to nail the winning penalty and a first Championship away win since their previous one in Rome four years earlier.
2008 (Italy 23-20 Scotland) was one that got away. Tries from Allister Hogg and Mike Blair had Scotland 17-10 up at the interval despite their scrum being given a pasting by Martin Castrogiovanni and company.
Then Sergio Parisse intercepted a Dan Parks pass on the hour and charged upfield before sending Gonzalo Canale over to level things up.
Paterson made it 20-20 with a penalty eight minutes from time but Italy finished the stronger and worked Andrea Marcato into a drop-goal position to seal the match with virtually the last kick.
Another sickener followed in 2010 (Italy 16-12 Scotland).
The Scots were raging that a punch on Johnnie Beattie went unpunished but the boot of Dan Parks had them 12-9 up past the hour.
The Azzurri rallied though and an excellent break from Canale put Pablo Canavosio over for the decisive try with 16 minutes left.
Prop Allan Jacobsen, who had an earlier effort ruled out by the TMO after a flowing move had side-stepped a couple of stray Italian physios, was held up over the line late on as the hosts clung on.
THE DUNCY DROP
All of Scotland’s five Six Nations wins in Rome have been clinched late on, four of them in the final three minutes. But 2014 (Italy 20-21 Scotland) has its own category, given the timing of the heist.
Italy led 13-3 at the break, but the visitors came out firing after the restart. Centre Alex Dunbar barrelled over for two tries to give Scotland an 18-13 lead with 13 minutes left.
A converted try by lock Josh Furno appeared to have ended the comeback and secured a memorable home victory. But fly-half Duncan Weir had other ideas.
From a scrum just outside the Italian 22, the advancing Scots appeared to have lost control of the ball before number eight Dave Denton dived on it. A carry from Matt Scott, another from Denton, before replacement scrum-half Chris Cusiter arrowed a pass back to Weir, in the pocket.
Despite the attentions of two Italians charging at him, a swift, sweet strike of the right foot saw the diminutive stand-off running back into his own half, fist pumping, with 15 seconds left on the clock, before turning to be engulfed by jubilant team-mates.
Scotland may have had more celebrated wins against greater opposition, but none perhaps with such a dramatic denouement.
THE ROLLERCOASTER RIDES TO VICTORY
Scotland’s last two jaunts to the Italian capital have been of a different vintage.
2016 (Italy 20-36 Scotland) brought their highest points tally in Rome and a classy highlights reel: Stuart Hogg setting up John Barclay on a wonderful support line for the opening try; Finn Russell’s delicious show-and-go for the second, scored by John Hardie in the left corner.
Vern Cotter’s men were 17-3 up, cruising. Italy scored a cracking try of their own via Leonardo Ghiraldini, but Greig Laidlaw’s superb kicking – he nailed eight out of nine – still had Italy at arm’s length – 26-13 down – on the hour.
But two Scottish yellow cards kept things tense. Russell departed for hands in a ruck. Marco Fuser’s try brought the hosts within a score, only for Laidlaw to bang over another penalty. 20-29. Russell returned, only for WP Nel to be binned with five minutes left. This time the Scots rode it out.
Hogg’s sumptuous offload put Tommy Seymour over with two minutes left and brought blessed relief after a nine-match losing run in the Championship.
2018 (Italy 27-29 Scotland) also saw the Scots take the scenic route to victory.
This was the first time they had scored four tries or more on the road in the Six Nations. But for large periods they were battered by the rampaging Italian forwards, with Dean Budd and Jake Polledri to the fore.
Gregor Townsend’s troops twice had to fight back from 12 points down – 17-5 after the first quarter, and 24-12 early in the second half. But Sean Maitland crossed just after the hour, and when Hogg went over with nine minutes left, Laidlaw’s conversion put them 26-24 up.
That wasn’t the end of it. Tommaso Allan banged over a penalty in the 76th minute to regain the lead. But with a minute left, Italy collapsed a Scottish maul. Cue the maestro. Laidlaw, from wide on the right, nailed the winning kick. Remarkable.
It was error-ridden and unconvincing but the record books show that Scotland won a third Six Nations game in a season for only the third time.
What will Saturday’s Rome reunion bring?
20 min. Italy 10, Scotland 3
HT. Italy 20, Scotland 9
60min. Italy 23, Scotland 16
FT. Italy 26, Scotland 22