Scotland made it five wins on the bounce but not without a bit of a fright, as the plucky Italians (sorry if that sounds patronising to any Italians reading this, but we get called it all the time) faded after a ferocious first-half effort.
Early exchanges with the boot went ended with a penalty given against Scotland for hands in the ruck, so Italy kicked to near the Scotland 22.
Although they made no progress over the gainline with their maul and subsequent phases, Scott Cummings gave away a penalty for playing the ball from an offside position when referee Luke Pearce had called the ruck formed. Paolo Garbisi knocked it over to give Italy the lead.
An Italian mistake nearly let Scotland in when they tried to spread it wide in their own half and Darcy Graham nearly pinched it ahead of Marco Zanon, but the home side managed to retrieve the bouncing ball from Johnson’s hack ahead.
Italy had impressed in the first half against England last week, and they were playing some clever, percentage rugby in the opening quarter of an hour to give Scotland little to work with. When Scotland did have possession they would invariably knock on. Then, when it came to the scrum, Italy were dominant.
The latest set-piece victory had also seen Rory Sutherland pick up an injury to his right leg, so Oli Kebble was on a lot earlier than expected.
Italy found touch in the Scotland 22 and an infringement by Nick Haining – on as an HIA replacement for Jamie Ritchie, who unfortunately did not return – at the line-out allowed Garbisi to extend the lead.
Another infringement by Haining shortly after the restart allowed Italy to clear to halfway, but sealing off by Danilo Fischetti gave Scotland an opportunity for Hogg to send it deep.
McInally found Cummings but Italy held off before engaging the maul, which had proven so effective in the last two games. The Italians were caught offside as Scotland approached the line but rather than take an easy 3, Hogg went to the line again.
This line-out did start to rumble on, penalty advantage was given for illegally sacking it, but Scotland continued to play and big Duhan van der Merwe bagged his second try for his adopted homeland when he found a hole in the Italian defence over 5m out. Easy pickings for the giant winger.
However, Italy retook the lead with a scintillating try from halfway just seconds later. Marco Zanon bounced off Duncan Weir, he fed Violi who off-loaded out of Graham’s tackle to Bellini. Despite Hogg’s best efforts, the winger dished it out to Matteo Minozzi for a wonderful try in the left=hand corner. Garbisi’s conversion attempt struck the upright to leave the score 11-7.
Early caginess had turned into a bit of chaos, both sides throwing it around, but whenever Scotland looked like making inroads, the Italians – particularly Fischetti – were able to effect the turnover.
Scotland ended the half in Italian territory, but Hogg’s attempted pass to Haining drifted into touch.
Scrappy stuff from Scotland, but credit must go to Italy for some ferocious defence work. The home side were clearly pumped for this one, celebrating every mini-game victory like their football coupon had just come up.
Half-time: Italy 11 – 7 Scotland
Another silly penalty conceded at the line-out with less than 90secs of the 2nd half gone, this time by Blade Thomson, gave Garbisi another shot at goal, which he took with aplomb.
Cometh the hour, cometh the Meatball. Or, so we thought.
Scotland’s attack started to tick, there was off-loads aplenty, and the returning Weir thought he had scored in the right-corner after a lovely interchange between he and Johnson, only for Johnson’s return pass to have gone a little forward.
Zander Fagerson then also wasn’t sure if he’d scored, after Duhan had battered through some tackles. Watson attempted to offload off the floor, Jake Polledri’s hand flicked it forward.
Fagerson and the Italian defenders assumed it had come off a Scottish hand, but with Jonny Gray egging him on, the tight-head dotted down and the try was awarded. 14-14.
Since that early penalty concession Scotland had dominated, particularly the territory, and Darcy Graham nearly scampered into the corner when Thomson had stripped the ball away, but the adventurous Italians came flying back.
A lovely off-load by Mori sent them on their way, and another perfectly weighted kick forced Hogg to take the ball back over his own line to give Italy a 5m scrum.
With Kebble now on the park the scrum had stabililsed, but Johnson was caught offside as Scotland defended their line. Garbisi put the Italians back in the front.
A quarter of an hour remained when Hamish Watson got himself over the ball halfway between the Italian 10 and 22m lines, but rather than level the scores, Hogg went for the corner.
Not very accurately, if truth be told, but replacement hooker George Turner used his fresh legs to blast through Polledri and get to within 5m. Warriors clubmate Scott Cummings showed why he’s become one of Townsend’s go to men by finishing the score, and possibly sparing Hogg a post-match grilling.
Another brave call to go to the line by Hogg with under 5mins remaining, when a penalty would’ve stretched Scotland’s lead to 7, proved to be the right option when Turner crossed for hooker-try number 23 in only 37 matches. It also secured the bonus point, which must’ve come into Hogg’s decision making process.
Italy were denied a losing bonus point when Scotland repelled two maul drives, and as he did in the Champions Cup final, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne – another making his return to the national side after a lengthy absence – won a turnover at the breakdown with time up. Hogg booted to touch to set Scotland off to a perfect start in this new tournament.
The first half was a little flat, there was nowhere near as much of the whooping and hollering as was heard at Parc Y Scarlets, but a tactical readjustment for the second half which saw more direct running from the centres and the forwards chucking off-loads around, did the business.
SRBlog Player of the Match: he’s just a monster, it’s Duhan van der Merwe. As well as scoring, every carry saw him eat the ground up, at least metaphorically speaking, it was the scrums which did most of the damage to the Artemio Franchi turf.
Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU)