DAVID BARNES @ Stadio Olimpico
GREGOR TOWNSEND and his team return from Rome with the win they so desperately needed in the bag, and Stuart Hogg’s brilliant 22nd minute try provides reassurance that he is still one of the great maestros of the game, but let’s not kid ourselves that this was anything other than a turgid tussle between two uninspired sides.
In some respects, this was a step backward for Scotland from their promising – although ultimately disappointing – outings against Ireland and England in previous rounds of this Six Nations championship. There was a distinct lack of composure at key moments and it was hard to escape the feeling that the players often lacked clarity in what exactly they were trying to achieve. But there is nothing like a win to blow away the cobwebs of self-doubt which were clearly beginning to infest the camp.
Keeping the opposition to zero away from home is not to be sniffed at, regardless of the limitations of the opposition.
The threat of being battered over the head with a wooden spoon at the end of the championship has subsided, and the team can look ahead to their next outing in two weeks’ time with renewed confidence and believing that against France at Murrayfield … well … anything is possible.
A line-out over the top to Sam Johnson allowed the centre to intrude into Italy’s 22 on seven minutes, but in now familiar fashion the Scots failed to turn territorial advantage into something tangible, going through several one-out phases before a knock-on by Magnus Bradbury stalled the move. It got worse because Scotland then won a penalty at the scrum only for Adam Hastings to fluff the simple kick at goal from directly in front of the posts.
Hastings missed touch a few minutes later, then gifted Italy possession with a thoughtless dink over the top, which could have had catastrophic consequences because when Blair Kinghorn missed his tackle on Mattia Bellini it prompted a sweeping Italian attack which required a last-ditch intervention from Stuart Hogg on opposite number Jayden Hayward to derail the home team’s surge towards the line.
Italy spent the next ten minutes on the front foot, but a combination of home inaccuracy and stuffy away defence meant that there were no clear-cut scoring opportunities, and it was Scotland who snatched the lead on 22 minutes with a flash of brilliance from their captain.
Kinghorn kicked ahead on the left, Italy fired the clearance back down Jamie Ritchie’s throat, and the flanker sent it back in field to Hogg via Hastings. The full-back then flicked the afterburners on to rocket between Sebastian Negri and Luca Morisi, before rounding Hayward, on his way to a sensational 60 metre try. Proof to those who have doubted him in recent weeks that he is still one of the most devastating broken-field runners in world rugby.
Ali Price thought he had extended Scotland’s lead seven minutes later, but a referral to the TMO identified that Hamish Watson’s offload to Sam Johnson during the build-up had been a mile forward.
Italy fought their way back into the game and had Scotland really stretched in the 36th minute, before an excellent rip by Chris Harris robbed Matteo Minozzi of possession at a crucial moment. A few minutes later, Bradbury was penalised for not rolling way, and the Scots were fortunate that Tommaso Allan’s long-range shot at goal hit the post.
Scotland almost got off to a perfect start to the second half when Price sent Watson through a gap in Italy’s fringe defence, who then fed Bradbury to thunder to within inches of the line, before offloading out the tackle to Ritchie, but the all-action flanker couldn’t quite gather with the line at his mercy.
Unperturbed, the visitors kept plugging away, and after 17 tight phases the ball was eventually fired out to Harris, who powered between Jake Polledri and Minozzi on his way to the line. Hastings hit the post with the conversion, but there was now breathing space.
At long last, the game started to settle into a flow. Hastings swept through a gap in midfield and charged into the Italian 22, but he had no support, and when his speculative offload was hoovered by Italy it was the cue for the action to sweep to the other end of the park through scything runs from Hayward and Minozzi, before Bradbury saved the day with a turnover 10 yards from the line.
Scotland were soon on the attack again when Kinghorn scooped up a loose ball wide on the left and fed Harris, who looked like he might go the distance himself, but the centre chose to flip the ball back inside to George Horne and the scrum-half couldn’t quite shake the Italian cover.
Possession was recycled with Hogg soon threatening on opposite side of the park, and the full-back should maybe have looked to use the two men outside him rather than go it alone.
Townsend began to clear his bench, and it seemed to have a disruptive effect in whatever flow the team had been beginning to get into. Hastings continued to struggle to find grass with his kicking game and was caught behind the gain line on a couple of occasions, but he wasn’t the only player having a frustrating afternoon.
Italian replacement hooker Federico Zani was sent to the sin-bin for a tipping Grant Gilchrist past the horizontal as they struggled to get over the tackle area, but still Scotland struggled to really impose themselves with any sort of consistency.
They did, however, finish with a flourish when Gilchrist did brilliantly to snaffle the ball on the deck, and Hastings opportunistically broke down the short-side from the base of the subsequent ruck for an unchallenged 40-yard run-in, before knocking over a quick drop-galled conversion for good measure.
Italy: J Hayward; M Bellini, L Morisi, C Canna, M Minozzi; T Allan (G Bisegni 73), C Braley (G Palazanni, 58); A Lovotti (D Fichetti 58), L Bigi (F Zani 58), G Zilocchi (M Riccioni 30-53), A Zanni (D Budd 43), N Cannone (M Lazzaroni 67), J Polledri, S Negri (G Licata 43), B Steyn.
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland (B McGuigan 67), C Harris (R Hutchinson 60), S Johnson, B Kinghorn; A Hastings, A Price (G Horne 54); R Sutherland (A Dell 54), S McInally (F Brown 59), Z Fagerson (W Nel 54), S Cummings (G Gilchrist 67), B Toolis, J Ritchie, H Watson, M Bradbury (M Fagerson 54).
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Italy: No scorers
Scotland: Try: Hogg, Harris, Hastings; Con: Hastings.
Scoring sequence (Italy first): 0-5 (h-t) 10-0; 15-0; 17-0.
Yellow cards –