A sunny Stadio Olimpico was bathed in sunshine as this most crucial of tests kicked off, with both sides chasing a first win to get their tournament on track. For Scotland fans it was important to see a vast improvement from the second half against Ireland and the insipid display against England at Murrayfield two weeks ago.
A knock on from the kick-off was a less than inspiring sign, and gave us an early scrum to sound out referee Steve Walsh – preferred scrum input signal is a tap on the arse – who promptly penalised Low for collapsing.
More surprising were Scotland’s early lineout steals against the best set-piece in the tournament so far. A penalty gave them a set piece of their own for attacking platform which fizzled out when Seymour kicked ahead too long but it came from well retained quick line-out ball and some nice hit-up and pass out from the Scotland players.
Securing their own ball and Beattie, Lamont and Scott running some nice lines while Weir fed them rather than kicking, it was hopeful at least, with Scotland doing the basics well amidst the fiery passion of the home support.
Sadly the scrum was still a considerable weakness with the first three all coughing up a penalty on Low’s side, and the Scotland tighthead looking at the prospect of a card from the first ten minutes.
Italy’s first spell of possession was typical, with big ball carrying from Furno and Parisse and the spark of Luke Maclean. Italy knocked on the door during a penalty advantage, but then knocked it on instead and took the 3 points through Tommaso Allan.
Laidlaw sealed an entertaining opening quarter with a penalty of his own, as both sides threw the ball about in the Italian sunshine.
Scotland’s first attacking scrum went the way of the others as a jubilant Italian pack drove right over Moray Low as he tried to give Scott Lawson some means of hooking the ball. Allan missed the penalty kick, but the Scottish scrum was creaking badly and giving Italy a clear tactical focus even as Scotland were performing admirably in other areas.
They were attacking well through Wilson, Seymour and Beattie but as has been the usual story there was a penalty coughed up to snuff out the momentum. It was the same story moments later as Fusaro stole the ball and Weir streaked clean through with Lamont in support outside him. The flyhalf slipped on the turf and offloaded into an Italian chest to kill Scotland’s most promising attack. Having turned his defender, a simple pass would have sent Lamont for a clear scoring chance.
On the other hand Italy took their chance when it presented and it was Parisse and then – naturally – Allan who took advantage of a dubious scrum award from Walsh to seize the momentum going in to the break.
Despite the woes at scrum time – that saw Low replaced by Cross before half time – and too many penalties protecting ball at the contact, Scotland could at least take heart from much improved performances from Scott, Wilson, Gray, Hogg – basically everyone. There was a massive issue with discipline and the penalty count would need to be significantly reduced if Scotland were to regain any foothold in the match.
High tension rugby matches tend to be decided in the ten minutes either side of half time by whoever raises their game, but with Italy winning the spell prior, in the spell after Scotland went through the phases and the hosts were content to soak it up. There was a refreshing lack of kicking and this gave Scotland plenty of ball to play with. Even as they fumbled it, Italy fumbled it right back and Fusaro was in there like a shot, proving his worth and earning a kickable penalty. Scotland’s increase in intensity and line speed was paying immediate dividends.
A scrum penalty for Scotland as Cross stabilised things (somewhat) saw Scotland kick for the corner, and batter at Italy for multiple phases. They were gaining ground slowly towards the 22 with Dunbar and Scott stepping up to carry ball, but ultimately ending in fumbles as usual. Laidlaw spurned three points again for a quick tap-and-go that Cross eventually knocked on.
It was tremendously frustrating to watch even if Italian mistakes gifted us chances to have another go.
The platform was leaps and bounds ahead of what we had seen so far in the tournament but it was still a high penalty count and those last-pass errors might cost Scotland dear.
Cross made up for his earlier error by combining well with the excellent Scott Lawson and then nice simple take and give from Scott and then Hogg put Dunbar round his man to sprint for the corner and the try that rejuvenated Scotland’s hopes.
Scotland continued an impressive (relative to Scotland rather than say the All Blacks) period of attack with Lawson, Cross, Hamilton and Gray all hitting up well and Scott and Dunbar at the heart of everything. The centres are starting to look like a real partnership in the making and combined with Lamont poor Allan can’t have known what hit him.
The renewed intensity was paying dividends and Weir was controlling the territory well but they were still behind on the scoreboard and Italy weren’t giving up even as the replacements gave them fresh legs. Luckily it was that man Dunbar who grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck for a second time in the last half hour as he and Scott drove at the Italian line tirelessly. Cusiter’s willingness to break helped too, as he and Lamont combined to put Dunbar in the clear with Scott in support. He didn’t need him though, battering for the line with a defender clinging to him. Walsh went to the TMO for a hint of obstruction and some flat offloads, but they looked fine and the try was awarded to the joy of the travelling support.
Just to make things interesting Italy weren’t done either, hitting back straight away with a try from the determined Furno that levelled the score with ten to play. With Allan off, Orquera’s first touch was to kick the conversion and reclaim the lead. Which he did, to set Scottish nerves fluttering again.
Scotland continued to attack with Gray and Denton (on for Fusaro) carrying powerfully and Scott and Lamont still managing to make ground but they were threatening to come up agonisingly short, 2 points down with less than five minutes on the clock.
Scotland had one last attacking scrum to try and secure a penalty, a drop goal – anything and salvage a winning score from what had been a much improved performance. Losing it now after pulling themselves out of the fire would have done much deeper damage. Luckily Duncan Weir heard the call and took Cusiter’s pass and sent it superbly between the uprights to secure the win and the delight of his fellow players and fans.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Tough call between Alex Dunbar and Scott Lawson who worked ceaselessly in the loose and played no small part in a 100% lineout completion rate, but at the end of the day Dunbar’s driving runs and two tries carried Scotland over the line in the second half. Mention also to Duncan Weir who showed huge stones to drop the winning goal to seal a deserved win.