A late change to the starting lineup meant David Denton dropping out and Ryan Wilson entering the team at Number 8, and Josh Strauss – who played on Thursday – coming on to the bench.
So it was a slightly unsettled looking Scotland who took the field at a packed Stadio Olimpico and early mistakes gave Italian standoff Kelly Haimona the first points.
After initial hiccups, the Scots hit straight back.
Two weeks ago we saw Hogg and Barclay failed to combine in broken field running but today the tables were overturned, as Visser offloaded to Hogg who spurted through the misaligned Italian defence, and patiently offloaded from the deck to a rampaging John Barclay who cut a nice line for the try. Laidlaw converted to make it 3-7.
Small errors continued but the big Scots runners – WP Nel and Jonny Gray in particular – were punching holes for Finn Russell to exploit. Again it was patience that created the score as he stayed upright in the tackle before getting the ball moving until it found John Hardie on the left wing. The openside had strength aplenty to batter over his marker for Scotland’s second try. Laidlaw again converted from an even wider angle.
The wee general showed good game management on 26 minutes by taking the points on offer to increase the gap to two converted tries and set off the first round of Mexican waves from the home support.
The Italians needn’t have worried, as some smartly timed passing and nice hands bamboozled the Scottish defence to put their hooker Ghiraldini over on the left wing and Haimona converting to peg it back to just 10-17 after half an hour.
Scotland suddenly looked uncomfortable, with a clear shift in momentum and the home crowd waking back up as the hard-charging Italians upped the intensity. It was John Hardie who managed to arrest their progress with good position at the breakdown.
Scotland didn’t win the ball – but it slowed things down for a series of scrums and Scotland were able to get their heads back in it. The set scrum was going well with Al Dickinson giving his opposite number a torrid time and the last act of the half was a penalty from that set piece, Laidlaw unfortunately pushing it wide and leaving the lead at just 7 points.
HT Italy 10-17 Scotland
The front row produced the goods again five minutes into the second half with a penalty straight in front that Laidlaw made good on this time.
Italy as usual came straight back on the attack and Scots discipline in the tackle close to the line was not to the liking of referee Jaco Peyper who seemed to ping Ross Ford for not releasing, despite him holding his hands away from the player and trying to move while Taylor who was on his feet challenged for the ball.
Italy kicked the points but at the next scrum again the Scots put the pressure on and Italy couldn’t break out securely, giving Laidlaw another penalty in their half which he slotted to draw the lead out to ten.
It was worrying minutes later as Tommy Seymour landed awkwardly from a high ball which gave Italy a channel to stream into but their skills let them down giving Scotland the scrum, which they converted into a penalty and releasing the pressure. The Scottish scrum was a real weapon, and the lineout was functioning pretty well so when they kept the ball they looked pretty comfortable, but they hadn’t really threatened the Italian 22 since those early tries.
Still, with Greig knocking them over from all areas Scotland were still in control, with another penalty on the hour mark to make it 13-26.
The Italians were led from the front as usual by the exemplary Parisse, but the centres Garcia and Campagnaro were also looking good when the Italians had the ball and whenever they drew near to the Scottish line it got edgy. Unfortunately for the men in navy, Finn Russell was binned for handling in the ruck (even as Laidlaw was being dumped on his head behind the previous one) which gave Italy an almost inevitable try through Fuser despite furious defending.
With 17 minutes to play it was 20-26 and it looked like another nervy ending in store. Despite Laidlaw kicking another penalty to keep that lead out Italy showed the ability to come right back at them and Scotland really needed to try and play some territory but Italy were doing it to them.
Still, if you want a way to run down a sin bin clock, a few reset scrums is the way to do it. As you often see though, relying on the scrum is a total lottery and so it was that Peyper gave the penalty to Italy, Parisse tapped and they so nearly got over for another try. The defence held, but Peyper had to issue another warning and there was a very real chance of seeing the last 20 of the game out down a man, especially with another set scrum under the Scottish posts.
Luckily that held too and Scotland finally got to half way with the ball, Barclay was pulled down in the air and from two penalties they were inside the Italian 22. Then, a slack attitude at the next breakdown and Italy are back in Scotland’s half. Italy attack, WP Nel flaps at the ball and is carded for a deliberate knock on. He had his scrum cap off before Peyper went to the pocket and Scotland were indeed down a man for the last 5 minutes.
Discipline is everything, isn’t it?
Scotland weren’t following the usual story of a shotgun to the feet though, and after a hoofed ball suddenly gave them something to play with, Laidlaw used up a few seconds with his pack before launching the move that won the game. A fizzing Russell proved that Scotland should never even think about trying to sit on a lead as they are far more effective attacking than defending.
The standoff spun a lovely pass wide to Taylor who drew his man, leaving Hogg and Seymour with a 2 on 2. Hogg ensnared both defenders then popped a lovely ball out the back door to Seymour who sprinted round for the score and to make Laidlaw’s final conversion easy.
Big Vern even managed a smile.
SRBlog Man of the Match: very hard to pick from the Scottish players, with many standing out up front including Jonny Gray, John Barclay and John Hardie, as well as Greig Laidlaw who kicked 8 from 9 and Stuart Hogg who selflessly created two of Scotland’s tries. The reason the end of this game was less tense than usual was the work done up front by Ford and the props, with Al Dickinson laying the platform. Nel just misses out due to the card but the backs spared his blushes.