STUART BATHGATE @ Murrayfield
BLAIR KINGHORN scored Scotland’s first Championship hat-trick in 30 years as the home team got their Six Nations campaign off to a promising start against a limited Italian side who only had a penalty to their name before a chaotic closing 10 minutes saw them claim three tries. Stuart Hogg and substitute Chris Harris also touched down for Gregor Townsend’s team, who were noticeably sharper at the breakdown than their opponents, while their kick chase frequently had the Italians in trouble.
In fact, such was the home team’s superiority in most aspects of the game that the unsatisfactory conclusion could be regarded as a salutary reminder of the work they have to do before some of the tougher challenges that await – starting with Ireland next Saturday. The immediate problem was the sin-binning of substitute Simon Berghan for repeated offending by his team, and Italy deserve credit for exploiting the extra man well. But, with captain Greig Laidlaw off the field, Scotland compounded their difficulties with a lapse into disorganisation.
Nonetheless, the final score flattered the Italians, who might easily have conceded more than five tries. Scotland were denied an early try when Grant Gilchrist was ruled to have made a double movement before touching down at the end of a line-out drive in the third minute, and they came close again a few minutes later when Blair Kinghorn came off his wing and cut right through the middle of Italy’s midfield defence, and he perhaps would have been better advised to pass to his outside men rather than go for the line on his own.
Despite that fast start by the Scots, the home team went behind to a Tommy Allan penalty, awarded for a tip tackle by Jamie Ritchie on Sergio Parisse. It was no more than a momentary set-back, however, and the hosts took the lead two minutes later when Greig Laidlaw stole the ball at the breakdown following the restart and Finn Russell angled an inch-perfect kick across the park for Kinghorn to gather and run in from the edge of the opposition 22.
Laidlaw failed to add the two points, and Sam Skinner then became the first casualty of the afternoon when he had to go off with an ankle injury, to be replaced by Josh Strauss. This did nothing to disrupt Scotland’s momentum, and midway through the half Kinghorn again got on the end of a wide move to score.
It was in fact Strauss who began the move with a pick-up from the base of a scrum inside the Italian 22. The substitute fed Laidlaw, who switched direction to Russell, and the stand-off then looped around debutant Sam Johnson before feeding to Stuart Hogg. The full-back’s pass to Kinghorn was not a thing of beauty, but bobbled along the ground with enough momentum to give the winger with time and space he needed sprint over in the corner.
The captain converted this time to put Scotland 12-3 up and enhance the impression that his team had the game firmly in their grasp. His seizing of possession at the breakdown was just one example of the home side’s much-improved performance in that aspect of play, and contrasted with the Italians’ uncharacteristically tentative approach.
The Azzurri did rally towards half-time, mounting their first real assault on the Scots line since the move that had produced their penalty. But they were soon repulsed by a ferocious and well-timed tackle by Tommy Seymour on Michele Campagnaro, and ended the first 40 back in their own half.
Scotland increased the tempo from the restart and a third try seemed only a matter of time. They got it after 47 minutes when Hogg beat Angelo Esposito in the race to ground a kick into the in-goal area from Russell – even though a replay cast doubt on how much downward pressure the scorer had exerted. Laidlaw’s conversion was good again, and Scotland had half an hour to get the fourth try and claim the bonus point.
They only needed five minutes. Laidlaw and Jamie Ritchie exchanged passes, and the captain put Kinghorn through from 15 metres out. Another conversion made it 26-3.
With the game won, Townsend went to his bench, and one of the replacements, Harris, got the fifth try with his first touch after another astute break by Hogg set up good position. With Laidlaw having given way to Ali Price, Russell took over the duties and converted to make it 33-3.
Italy rallied in what remained of the game, and scored three late tries. The first was from short range through Guglielmo Palazzani after Berghan had been sin-binned for collapsing the maul, with Allan’s conversion taking them into the respectability of double figures. Edoardo Padovani got the second with a simple score after Scotland had run out of numbers on the right, but substitute Ian McKinley was off target with the conversion.
Angelo Esposito got the third, again from a break up the right, with two minutes left. The winger drop-kicked his conversion attempt back off the post. That late recovery notwithstanding, the Italians’ limited contribution has to be a concern to Conor O’Shea, who has yet to enjoy a win in the tournament as their coach.
Scotland know they will not have things their own way against Ireland next week to anything like the same extent against Italy, but as a first-up outing this was ideal in many respects – the obvious exception being the yellow-carding of Berghan and their subsequent inability to shut out the Italians for 80 minutes.
The win might have been by a slightly wider margin had Hogg’s touchdown eight minutes from time been allowed to stand, but the referee had already called play back for obstruction. Gary Graham came on with time running out to join fellow-substitute Jake Kerr and starting centre Sam Johnson in making his debut.
Scotland: Hogg; Seymour, Jones (Harris 58), Johnson, Kinghorn; Russell (Hastings 77), Laidlaw (capt; Price 58); Dell (Bhatti 58), McInally (Kerr 63), Nel (Berghan 50), Toolis, Gilchrist, Skinner (Strauss 13), Ritchie, Wilson (Graham 74).
Italy: Hayward; Esposito, Morisi, Castello (Padovani 49), Campagnaro; Allan (McKinley 72), Palazzani; Lovotti (Traore 52), Ghiraldini (Bigi 59), Ferrari (Pasquali 65), Sisi, Budd (Ruzza 52), Negri (Tuivaiti 59), Steyn, Parisse (capt).
Scotland: Tries: Kinghorn 3, Hogg, Harris. Cons: Laidlaw 3, Russell.
Italy: Tries: Palazzani, Padovani, Esposito. Con: Allan. Pen: Allan.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-3; 5-3; 10-3; 12-3 (h-t) 17-3; 19-3; 24-3; 26-3; 31-3; 33-3; 33-8; 33-10; 33-15; 33-20.
Yellow Cards –
Scotland: Simon Berghan
Referee: L Pearce (England).