THE introduction of the bonus point system in the Six Nations was meant to get rid of games like this. Italy came to play anti-rugby and Scotland allowed themselves to be dragged down to that level. Their Six Nations campaign, which started with an almighty roar against Ireland, ended with a bit of a whimper here. A comfortable victory to send Vern Cotter on his way, but not exactly the sort of spectacle the big New Zealander will want to define his short tenure as head coach of the national team.
We thought we had got past the era at Murrayfield when the crowd become so disengaged from the efforts of the players on the park that they choose to showcase their lack of appreciation through taking part in a Mexican wave – but that’s what we encountered after 64 minutes of this turgid arm-wrestle.
Having said all that, it was a bonus point victory – Scotland’s first ever – so it would be churlish to complain too loudly. It is the first time in the Five/Six Nations since Wales in 1993 that they have managed to stop the opposition from scoring a single point. It is a measure of how far this team has come during a very short period that we can state without a hint of irony that we are entitled to expect more from them. Scotland finished this campaign with three wins for the first time since 2006, and their 14 tries is more than they have managed in any previous Six Nations.
Cotter was clearly emotional as he briefly addressed the crowd after the game, wiping his eye several times as he moved off to embrace players and coaching staff. But by the time the press conference convened about an hour later, he had recovered his composure.
“Those records are nice. It’s just good to see a solid win and character from people. To see that the game means a lot to them and that they’re able to get out there and sort out a few things from last week. The three wins is great. It’s a reflection of the work these guys put in, the honest review from last week and the time we spent on the field this week,” he said.
“It was nice to be able to finish at home with the bonus point win. It was the objective at the start of the game, and I thought the players worked through it well. It wasn’t always perfect, but we got there in the end. Job done.”
“As I’ve said right from the start, its been an honour and a privilege to be part of this, to work with such good people and to have good people around me. It was nice to finish with a win. Now … move on.”
He walks away as Scotland’s most successful coach of the professional era with a 53 percent win rate. Gregor Townsend has a hard act to follow, but it is clear from last week’s debacle at Twickenham and the limitations in the team’s performance here that there is still plenty room for growth.
Italy were woeful. Early in the second half they twice found themselves with yawning overlaps on the right and twice butchered the opportunity, which is a damning indictment of their limitations. They were 15-0 down at that point and this was going to be their one and only chance to rescue something from the game – but were far too pedestrian. Their link play looked like it was between players who had only just been introduced to each other.
Perhaps they were unlucky not to get a penalty try when John Barclay was sent to the sin-bin in the midst of a flurry of penalties conceded as Scotland tried to resist their opponents’ powerful line-out drive – but there needs to be more to their game than that.
All four of Scotland’s tries were well taken. In the first half: Finn Russell took the ball flat and jinked over in the 28th minute after several powerful phases; then Matt Scott profited when Ali Price recognised that nothing was on so sent a neat box kick into the in-goal area which Stuart Hogg tapped down. After the break: Tim Visser was first to Hogg’s kick ahead as it rebounded off a set of legs and into the in-goal area; and in the 72nd minute Tommy Seymour went in for the bonus-point clincher after good hands from Finn Russell and Hogg.
But in amongst all that there was a distinct lack of the vim and vigour with ball in hand which characterised their performances against Ireland, Wales and even France (when they manged to get their hands on half decent possession). Prevented from securing quick ball, they got frustrated and ended up spending more time squabbling with the opposition than positively influencing the game. For the final few minutes of the first half, Ryan Wilson seemed to be on a one-man guerrilla mission – hunting down lone Italians and wrestling them into submission, long after the ball had moved on.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. They’re a big side and the conditions changed a lot about the way we were going to play the game. They didn’t want to play in their half and were kicking the ball back to us. We had to be patient, and there were a couple of occasions where we didn’t take the opportunity given to us,” said Cotter.
“But we managed to work our way through a tough team, and a yellow card, and still come away with a bonus point victory. It was never going to be easy, you only have to remember what it was like two years ago. So it was nice to come away with what we set out to do.”
“It wasn’t perfect, but the result was there and I’m really happy with the character shown by this group of men.”
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones (M Scott 26, D Weir 74), A Dunbar, T Visser; F Russell, A Price (H Pyrgos 53); G Reid (A Dell 53), R Ford (F Brown 65), Z Fagerson (S Berghan 65), G Gilchrist (T Swinson 53), J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson (C Du Preez 48).
Italy: E Padovani; A Esposito, T Benvenuti, L McLean, A Venditti; C Canna (L Sperandio 62), E Gori (M Violi 52); A Lovotti (S Panico 62), O Gega (L Ghiraldini 40), L Cittadini (D Chritolini 40), M Fuser (D van Schalkwyk 52), G Biagi, M Mbanda (F Minto 52), A Steyn, S Parisse.
Scotland: Tries: Russell, Scott, Visser, Seymour; Cons: Russell 3; Pen: Hogg
Italy: No Scorers
Scoring Sequence (Scotland first): 3-0; 8-0; 10-0; 15-0 (h-t) 20-0; 22-0; 27-0; 29-0
Yellow Cards –
Scotland: Barclay (48 mins)