In the unfamiliar heat of Singapore, Scotland got Gregor Townsend’s tenure as Scotland head coach off to a flying start, at least in terms of tempo.
The opening quarter of the game was all Scotland, but despite this they couldn’t turn it into a try. With Hardie a late withdrawal and Wilson starting at 7, it was typical early tour stuff, at times more like an extended game of sevens with neither side able to whittle out any sort of continuity from this hot mess.
There was an early exchange of penalties between Finn Russell and Tomasso Allan in a game style that suited Russell, but as is often the case he took a while to settle and stop throwing impractical passes.
At 3-3, the Italians would probably have been reasonably satisfied after a half they hadn’t taken much out of, but then the Scottish half-backs finally grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. Ali Price scythed round the defence for the opening try which brought relief, while the second try was one of those moments of Russell wonder that make you forgive the passes to no-one. Almost.
Finding a little space opening up around half way, Russell carved a diagonal line through the Italian midfield then chipped into a huge space. The ball bounced high and unclaimed until Hoyland leapt up for it. It was recycled quickly by Price, and Russell mercilessly put another kick in behind, this time for the other wing Tim Visser. The Dutchman was indeed flying, and caught it in a dive at full stretch for a second try.
Russell took a clatter in the act of his second chip kick and with Horne adjudged unable to take the conversion by the officials, Duncan Taylor added another string to his considerable bow to smash it between the uprights.
Half-time: Italy 3-15 Scotland
Russell returned after half time with the early makings of a facial bruise to match the one Stuart Hogg may well have following his encounter with Conor Murray’s elbow. Scotland resumed their onslaught against Italy with a kick to the corner and a lineout drive that the Italians were powerless to stop. Ross Ford battered over at the back to get the try, only his third in international colours.
If that was a display of the grim superiority Scotland have held over Italy under Vern Cotter, the next try was right out of the Gregor Townsend playbook. With a man advantage after Dean Budd was sin-binned after repeated infringements, Scotland had possession close to the line. Russell carried close before popping it to Taylor who busted over the gain line before offloading to Hoyland, who in turn popped it to Russell who with the briefest of glances, offloaded out the back to that man Ford who ambled over from short range for his fourth try in 108 caps.
Regardless of the quality of defence, it was a great try by an energised Scotland team.
In terms of Italy’s attack, it was close to an hour before they had a real visit to Scotland’s 22 and despite the continuing harem scarum nature of the game, Scotland’s defence held firm.
Italy finally got a try with around 15 minutes to go, Campagnaro feeding off a Maxime Mbanda break and having more than enough to withstand a lightweight (read: hilarious unless it’s against the Wallabies) attempt at a tap tackle from Visser.
Italy were given a second yellow when Henry Pyrgos was dumped off the ball by Braam Steyn. Scotland’s scrum, which went well under the whip of both WP Nel and Zander Fagerson, gave them a solid platform and the ball was moved left, Pete Horne perhaps ignoring an overlap on that side but when it went back to the right wing, Duncan Taylor drew his man and Damien Hoyland was too quick for Sarto in the corner. Horne slotted a superb touchline conversion to put the game beyond all doubt.
Italy scored one further try through Angelo Esposito in the corner in the dying minutes, but by that point the game had been long over as a contest. Against Italy’s not-quite-first-choice XV, this was probably the sort of win that Townsend would have wanted and gives the right mix of satisfaction and things to work on ahead of the Australia test next weekend.
Referee: Paul Williams (NZRU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Ross Ford had one of his best games and was rewarded with two tries, and John Barclay had a captain’s game in the 6 shirt. Ben Toolis ran the lineout brilliantly. Finn Russell had two superb touches – one the kick for Visser’s try, and one the mini-flip for Ford’s second. For me the Man of the Match was at the back of the team though. His haircut is awful – speaking as a man who’s had bad haircuts all his life! – but filling in the 15 shirt, Duncan Taylor did a superb job. He’s not the paciest but he was secure, he carried hard and distributed well with a hand in two of the tries. Not only that, he kicked a conversion too. If Gatland’s looking for a centre-cum-fullback following injuries to Hogg and Jonathan Davies, Taylor should be on speed-dial.