It was unusually summery weather for Scotland vs Italy at Murrayfield, with a beach party theme a contrast to the weather when we are normally here for rugby and warm-up music at decibel levels that will have done nothing to placate those that dislike pre-match razzmatazz.
Unfortunately that buzz was undone by a scrum straight from the kickoff, but luckily Roman Poite – no great lover of Scottish set-piece skills in the past – only oversaw one reset before blowing up in Scotland’s favour. A very fit looking Scotland pack made a good fist of the next scrum with the call again “binding on the arm” and gave Greig Laidlaw the first points.
Newly arrived in the starting XV with ground to make up, Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg were all more than eager to get into the thick of it alongside Pete Horne who is in the form of his life making darting runs testing the Italian defence. Russell’s second or third touch of the ball was a perfectly judged chip kick that found Sean Lamont who gathered it easily to cross for the game’s first try.
Despite all the scrums there was still a party atmosphere to the opening quarter of an hour with the Scots playing fast and loose Sevens-style attack – including some great hands from Jonny Gray in the thick of it – and the Italians kindly spilling what little ball they had.
It was ambitious if chaotic stuff, but just a little too haphazard to get any results as the Italian defence settled, one particular example being Visser blowing a two on one overlap in favour of some hot-stepping.
The scrum was a continual source of possession and territory for the Scots though, with both props earning the favour of Poite; unusual for props round these parts. The pressure wore as Laidlaw kicked another 3 on 23 mins.
Italy had a couple of kickable penalties but Italy were chasing a gap so felt the need to go for the corner. The maul was collapsed and while he had the advantage, Tomasso Allan chipped into the dead ball where both Visser and Laidlaw flapped at it, but it ended in the grateful possession of Michele Campagnaro. It kept the referee’s attention away from any thought of cards but Italy were right back in it.
After a few more scrums and a replacement prop for Italy who were finding it hard going at the coal face, Scotland blew a good attacking lineout chance and the promise of the opening quarter was diminishing as the match headed to half time.
A strong drive by Scotland gave Bennett and Horne some space to cut loose but all it led to was Minto getting binned before the pack took another crack at the lineout drive. With the influence of specialist coach and water carrier par excellence Nathan Hines beginning to show, the drive took the pack close before Barclay splintered and dove over. You couldn’t really see it grounded, but Poite was looking for reasons he couldn’t award it and there weren’t many to be had. A popular score.
The PA announced half time but Poite had other ideas as Italy had a lineout and a first real chance to threaten the Scottish line. Instead, Laidlaw pinched it and gave Hogg and the backs a spirited sprint up the park which promised much but fizzled out.
Half-time: Scotland 23 – 7 Italy
The opening exchanges of the second half were dominated by Stuart Hogg whose pace was causing all sorts of bother for Italian defenders. Slick hands and nicely timed passing almost put Visser in at the corner but the Italians were there in enough numbers.
They were also eschewing penalty kicks in favour of drilling the lineout drive and the pressure from the pack gave the backs plenty of space to work in and a huge looping pass from Russell found Visser in plenty of space.
Pete Horne had fizzed all match in the centre but went off with a knee knock, giving Matt Scott a vital half hour of game time. He instantly shows the extra heft he brings at 12 and the necessity of stopping him gave Bennett and Russell more room to work with.
Laidlaw kicked a penalty but the Mexican wave had started around a series of set scrums that were clearly not of interest to the record crowd for a summer fixture.
Who could argue?
Things livened up when Sean Lamont intercepted Geldenhuys’ pass around the 22 and ran it in for an easy try. Laidlaw couldn’t convert, but by that point it was mostly over and became all about performance for those players still uncertain of a spot on Big Vern’s bus.
The pack responded well, stopping the Italian maul at about the same point it was crumpling us in the Six Nations. A frustrated Michael Rizzo lashed out at Gordy Reid’s head with his boot and spent 10 in the bin, before Visser made the most of Italy forcing play to intercept and go the distance for a huge cheer.
A period of uncontested scrums and a fully-clothed streaker did little to dispel the listless atmosphere with the result thankfully long beyond doubt, but things got a fillip right at the end when Mark Bennett gathered a loose ball and streaked away. Visser could have had the hat-trick but Bennett’s has pace of his own and earned perhaps the biggest cheer of the afternoon to put the gloss on a solid hit out for Scotland.
Tries: Lamont (2), Barclay, Visser (2), Bennett
Cons: Laidlaw (2), Russell
Pen: Laidlaw (4)
Referee: Roman Poite (FRA)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Plenty of positives up front including Nel, Dickinson, Barclay and Gray but Finn Russell created two tries with his own skill and was at the heart of nearly every attacking move Scotland tried. The players outside him profited and the score was a reflection of how far ahead Scotland’s backs were today.