If Italy haven’t exactly kicked on from the promise shown since they beat France a few years back, their fans have been taken to heart and supporters of both sides turned up to BT Murrayfield in record numbers for the midway point of Scotland’s Six Nations campaign.
Scotland had the perfect start, as almost directly from Hogg’s kickoff – perhaps giving new boy Pete Horne a chance to settle in – Scotland earned their first penalty from referee George Clancy. Laidlaw made short work of it to open the scoring.
Scotland then had a couple of good breaks with Cowan making good yards up front and Dunbar then Hogg finding plenty of space to work in out wide – exactly what they had lacked against Wales.
Italy were looking to run the ball themselves and it promised a game with plenty of pace and attacking rugby. With that comes the risk of the intercept and Mark Bennett made the most of it to pick up his first try for Scotland, running over unopposed from just inside the Italian half.
Italy struck right back though with something perhaps more their cup of espresso: a driving maul that may or may not have crossed the line. Josh Furno was given the try but the conversion was missed. It’s a wonder they didn’t try it more.
Scotland looked pretty unconcerned and kept attacking, earning another penalty after Italian attackers swamped Seymour who had burst through the line off Horne’s well-timed pass.
Kelly Haimona kicked a penalty for Italy to keep the scores close and although Italy were as keen to run as Scotland (Parisse to the fore as usual) most of the play was in the right areas of the field for the home side, which meant that when the whistle blew Laidlaw could kick the points.
If there is a side as poorly disciplined as us in the tournament then it is the Italians so Clancy had plenty to do, especially at scrum time where he cut an increasingly frustrated figure as both front rows seemed unwilling to bend to his will.
Dickinson in particular seemed to displease him but luckily only one of the penalties was kickable for Haimona.
That one bounced innocuously off the post but caused a frantic scramble that went to the TMO after an incredible round the back catch from Venditti that materialised through a pack of Scotland defenders round the other side of the post just over the line. The grounding was good but how it got there is anyone’s guess. The Scottish part of the crowd didn’t like it.
Down by only a point, Italy clearly looked the side with the momentum going into half time and suddenly the territory in use switched to mostly Scotland’s half.
A stern word from Vern would be required.
Half-time: Scotland 16-15 Italy
Suddenly it looked like a Scotland v Italy game from 8 years ago. Nervy, with neither side putting the other to the sword and both – perhaps Scotland most – looking apprehensive to try anything too risky.
What they needed was solid set piece and strong carries from the forwards but there wasn’t too much of that, so it was perhaps unsurprising that Watson was given his first cap early, on for Beattie after only 51 minutes.
Endless scrums started to play into Italian hands – even without the absent Castro – and the Italian fans kept singing even as Tommy Allan narrowly missed a penalty.
Away from the scrum the game was vastly more entertaining, with the Glasgow backline (plus Laidlaw) all offering a threat with ball in hand that kept the Italians on their toes, and the Italians not restricting their “champagne rugby” to just the backs with Furno and Parisse ever present.
The game finally livened up for the home fans after some nice offloading by Gray and Swinson created a bit of space for Lamont but his try-creating pass to Hogg was well forward. Still, it showed the Italians could be opened up given some patience. As usual for this stage of a tight game featuring Scotland, it seemed in short supply.
Laidlaw settled the nerves a little with a penalty just after the hour mark as the sun started to go down and the usual substitutions began. Ross Ford limped off and Mark Bennett – good in patches, but not yet spectacular – restoring the promising partnership of Dunbar and Matt Scott when he went off.
By the time Greig Laidlaw came off there were 6 minutes to go and Scotland were defending another scrum on their own 5 metre line.
And it was raining.
Perfect for a scenario of Scots misery.
Not initially, as Scotland with Cross, Brown and Grant on scrummed manfully and held firm. To the joy of the crowd; a penalty. Kick it long, hold on to the lineout and scrape away with a win.
Then the key moment: as Russell had done the week before, Horne’s left boot (rather than Hogg’s right) missed touch from the penalty and gave the visitors one last chance to maul their way to the win. Their first attempt was adjudged pulled down by Ben Toolis on his debut (yellow card) and it was starting to get St Etienne ’07 levels of nervy.
Italy, as they had been all game, were too strong in the maul and when the next one was pulled down, Hamish Watson was binned (also on debut) and Clancy went beneath the posts to send to make the Italians very happy, and Scotland staring down the miserable prospect of another Wooden Spoon.
SRBlog Man of the Match: A pretty dire outcome for Scotland players. Jonny Gray put in the usual power of work and the biggest effort behind the ball came from Tommy Seymour (Dunbar had a listless first half) who was blameless in the defeat which has to be lain largely at the foot of the pack.