The key talking points from Scotland's 29-27 win against Italy in the 2018 Six Nations
Italy v Scotland Talking Points from Rome
This was a belting match to launch Super Saturday, with Scotland having to twice come from 12 points down, as well as cope with falling behind again with five minutes remaining, before gaining the victory that had been expected.
The cold fact is that Italy lost for the 17th successive time in a Six Nations match, equalling the record held by the France team of 1911-20, but this at last was a performance of real grit and fire.
In their best display of this year’s championship, they at times had the Scots completely rattled but they were left to rue missed opportunities either side of half-time.
Ultimately Scotland had the composure to claw their way back for a win that takes them back to fifth in the world rankings, leapfrogging South Africa. Greig Laidlaw has scored more than 600 points for his country and the three he landed in the 79th minute proved decisive.
Coupled with the result at Twickenham, it means Scotland have finished above England in the championship table for the first time since 2006.
For Italy, there is at least the consolation of a first-ever bonus point but it will feel very hollow on a day when far greater reward beckoned.
Here are the main talking points from the match in Rome…
Fire and brimstone
Italy always seem to play with extra belief when they play Scotland, a side they have beaten several times before, and their forwards ripped into the visitors.
Tighthead Simone Ferrari set the tone with a powerful run and then a great tackle on Nick Grigg, but this was a true team effort. Dean Budd was terrific in the second row and the back-row bruisers Sebastian Negri and Jake Polledri were magnificent.
Polledri, making his Test debut a year on from playing third-tier rugby in England, consistently won the collisions and he had made 11 carries and nine tackles by the time he was subbed off late on. He also achieved a morale-boosting steal near his line and made the bust from which Tommaso Allan scored his second try in the 44th minute.
The conversion made it 24-12 and a failure to build on that, when they had all the momentum, is what cost Italy the game.
The Azzurri were undone by a mix of poor execution, misfortune and breakdown indiscipline that enabled Scotland to bite off huge chunks of territory and bring their driving maul into play.
Soon after Allan’s second try, Italy looked certain to score after some brilliant offloading by Budd and Leonardo Ghiraldini, but the pass from Sergio Parisse went to ground.
Italy’s captain, making his 65th championship appearance, equalling the record held by Brian O’Driscoll, appealed for a knock-on by Finn Russell but the TV evidence was inconclusive.
It was yet another disappointing outcome for Parisse, who a few minutes earlier had seen a try by Negri disallowed after Parisse’s pass to Tommaso Castello went slightly behind the centre and was knocked on.
Just as damaging, perhaps, was Italy’s failure to pass to Matteo Minozzi in the final play of the first half when he would have had a one-on-one with Tommy Seymour. Such are Minozzi’s footwork skills that most would have backed the Italian full-back.
Magician strikes again
By then Minozzi had already registered a try for the fourth successive Six Nations match – the first Italian to do so – after an agile gather from Tommaso Allan’s grubber kick.
“He’s a crackerjack of a player,” said ex-Scotland centre Scott Hastings in his TV commentary.
Allan, a former Scotland U20 player, also ghosted through himself and with two conversions and a penalty, Italy led 17-12 at the break.
Fraser Brown’s try, from a long pass by the indefatigable Hamish Watson, got Scotland off the mark on nine minutes but it was quickly apparent that they were below their usual standard.
When they needed comfort they found it in their maul. After Alessandro Zanni was penalised for not rolling away, Russell kicked to the corner and John Barclay touched down from the drive.
Trailing 24-12 in the second half, they engineered a try for Sean Maitland from a penalty advantage that came from another drive.
Then, after Stuart Hogg ran in his 18th try in 60 Scotland Tests and Allan kicked a 76th-minute penalty after Jonny Gray got stuck on the wrong side at a ruck, Scotland went to the well one last time.
This time Italy collapsed the Scottish maul and Laidlaw, as cool a head as you could wish for in such circumstances, stepped up to win the match for Scotland. It’s not the first time Italy have succumbed at the death to a Scottish boot, with Chris Paterson’s penalty (2006) and Duncan Weir’s drop-goal (2014) other occasions when the Azzurri were cruelly thwarted.
Even after Laidlaw’s strike, however, Italy regained the ball at the restart to launch a final attack, but Braam Steyn’s knock-on crushed their hopes of ending their long losing run in the tournament.
Italy’s performance showed just how squarely they are behind the management team headed up by Conor O’Shea. They have moved on from their dismal possession stats earlier in the tournament, with a creditable 47% possession and only 13 fewer carries than Scotland.
Their tackle accuracy (89%) also improved, their lineout was flawless (if cautious) and the third-minute scrum, in which Scotland were sent hurtling backwards, was something you don’t see too often in international rugby.
Sadly for Italy, the precision required to convert opportunities wasn’t quite there. They scored three tries but the thrust and energy of their forwards demanded even more.
Their maul defence wasn’t up to the job either but let’s give credit here to Scotland forwards coach Dan McFarland. Amid all the pizzazz of the back-line, it’s easy to forget that sometimes it’s Scotland’s forward pack that gets the job done.
Scotland, too, will point to the disruption caused by Russell’s injury, which forced Laidlaw to shift to ten for almost 30 minutes of the match. It came at a time when Italy had the ascendency and victory from such an unpromising position must be viewed as a feather in Scotland’s cap. Previous Scottish sides might not have found a way to prevail.
“It’s great to pick up an away win, to finish with three wins,” said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. “Today’s game will be as valuable as the win against England in terms of experience this group has and being able to beat teams when you’re not playing your best. Our fitness was a big factor.
“To get three wins in such a competitive championship is okay. But we want to do better than that. We still have a long way to go to reach our potential.”
Italy – Tries Allan 2, Minozzi. Cons Allan 3. Pens Allan 2.
Scotland – Tries Brown, Barclay, Maitland, Hogg. Cons Laidlaw 3. Pen Laidlaw.
Italy Matteo Minozzi; Tommaso Benvenuti (Jayden Hayward 58), Giulio Bisegni, Tommaso Castello (Carlo Canna 73), Mattia Bellini; Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi (Guglielmo Palazzani 66); Andrea Lovotti (Nicola Quaglio 58), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Oliviero Fabiani 76), Simone Ferrari (Tiziani Pasquali 59), Alessandro Zanni (Abraham Steyn 52), Dean Budd, Sebastian Negri, Jake Polledri (Giovanni Licata 66), Sergio Parisse (capt).
Scotland Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones (Pete Horne 52), Nic Grigg, Sean Maitland; Finn Russell (Ali Price 53), Greig Laidlaw; Gordon Reid (Jamie Bhatti ht), Fraser Brown (Stuart McInally ht), WP Nel (Zander Fagerson ht), Jonny Gray, Tim Swinson (Richie Gray 52), John Barclay (capt), Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson (David Denton 66).
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