by STUART RUTHERFORD
VERN COTTER’S three-year reign in charge of Scotland ended on a positive note as his side recorded a hard fought bonus-point victory over a toothless Italian outfit.
Scotland controlled proceedings in a first-half dominated by the wretched weather, and were able to jump to a 15-0 lead, despite the loss of in-form centre Huw Jones – who appeared to suffer a serious ankle injury – leaving his potential Lions future in doubt.
The hosts survived a number of goal-line scares immediately following the break, and John Barclay was sent to the sin-bin, however, a late surge from Scotland saw Tim Visser and then Tommy Seymour touch down for a deserved bonus-point grabbing try.
The loss now means that the Azzurri have gone a record 749 days without a Six Nation’s victory – with their last win coming at Murrayfield in February 2015 – and will add further fuel the fire under the argument that a relegation system should be put in place, which would potentially allow sides such as Georgia to compete in the tournament.
For Scotland, it is a satisfying end to a campaign that has – for the first time since 2006 – produced three victories. You could perhaps argue that last weekend’s Calcutta Cup catastrophe has partially removed the shine from what has been a hugely impressive tournament, but it is the first time Scotland have won three matches in a tournament since 2006, and this was achieved despite a catastrophic injury list which included: first choice props Alasdair Dickinson and WP Nel; back-rowers Josh Strauss and John Hardie; scrum-half and captain Greig Laidlaw and centre Duncan Taylor (for all or most of the tournament).
As the Kiwi head-coach passes on the torch to the incoming Gregor Townsend – here are the moments that mattered in yesterday afternoon’s encounter:
Canna kick it?
Fortunately for Scotland, the visitors’ fly-half Carlo Canna appeared to have left his kicking boots in Rome, which is a huge problem when your game-plan is based around turning the set-piece and breakdown into a war of attrition in order to milk penalties from the opposition. Canna – who had made six out of seven kicks before this game – missed three first-half penalties, of which two appeared to be straightforward, which ultimately led to the Italians abandoning their goal-kicking strategy. With nine points on the board, it would have been a completely different match at half-time.
Dunbar and Jones make amends
In the fallout of last weekend’s Calcutta Cup loss there was perhaps no one more chastised than the centre partnership of Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones. As the pairing found themselves cut open on several occasions by England’s slick attack, there were doubts cast over their sustainability at international level. However, when Scotland needed the work-horse duo to drag them over the gain-line with today’s game still in the balance, the double act stepped up to the plate. With the Italians knocking on the door, Dunbar and Jones both made exhilarating breaks in a 24 phase attack, which would eventually lead to Russell scoring the first try of the afternoon. Although Jones would make way for Matt Scott dues to injury fairly early on, Dunbar continued for the full 80 minutes and the Glasgow Warrior once again showcased his ability to operate like a fourth back-row player at the breakdown.
Scotland’s goal-line stand
After replacement Matt Scott touched down on the stroke of half-time, Scotland held a warranted 15-0 lead; it wasn’t an insurmountable advantage by any standards – but considering Italy’s lack of goal-kicking threat, Vern Cotter’s side were in a commanding position. That was until John Barclay found himself in the sin-bin following several infractions at the breakdown. With a man advantage, the Italians looked to bully their way back into the game with several lineout drives, however, the Scottish defence held out. With several bites at the cherry, the Azzurri were inches away from making it an eight-point game, then frantic scrag defence from Stuart Hogg, not once, but twice, apprehended Angelo Esposito, when the winger looked almost certain to score. You only had to watch the impassioned reaction from Hogg after that second tackle to get an idea of how pivotal a moment it was in the match.
Visser’s try eliminates Azzurri resistance
With Scotland finally managing to clear their lines – following a ten minute spell in which Conor O’Shea’s side were camped on their five-metre line – the hosts put the game to bed with a quick-fire score from Tim Visser. The try – like so many of Scotland’s scores – came courtesy of a piece of flair from Hogg, who once again showed why he is perhaps the most dangerous man in the tournament in any 3-on-2 situation. When Russell put Hogg in a yard of space, the full-back was able to identify that both Italian defenders were on their heels and played a delightful chip that Visser eventually got his hand to as he slid over the whitewash. With the result now a certainty, Scotland played out the remaining 20 minutes in a fearless fashion and subsequently scored the all important, bonus-point earning fourth try of the afternoon.