Vern Cotter’s Murrayfield reign ended on a high as he signed off as Scotland head coach with a comfortable 29-0 win over Italy.
Scotland finished the tournament with pass marks, three wins from five for only the second time in the history of the Six Nations, although this was not the commanding send-off that the players would have wanted for the departing coach.
It was the first time Scotland have zeroed anyone in the championship since 1993 and it was the first time in the Six Nations that Italy have failed to trouble the scoreboard away from home.
The Scots scored two tries in the opening 40 and weathered an Italian storm in the third quarter before bouncing back in the last 20 minutes to claim two more scores, including the all-important bonus-point touchdown with eight minutes left on the clock.
It was too ugly an encounter for anyone in white to catch Warren Gatland’s eye but Hamish Watson carried tirelessly, man of the match Finn Russell looked something like his old self and Matt Scott reminded everyone what he could do off the bench, as a first-half replacement for Huw Jones, who had looked sharp until forced from the field.
Stuart Hogg set up Scotland’s two second-half tries but for once his heroics were concentrated at the opposite end of the field, helping Scotland keep a clean sheet in that third quarter, much of which the Scots spent with their backs to the wall.
Italy arrived with two tactics, the scrum and the maul, and while they enjoyed sporadic success with the second option, the Scots put paid to the first by earning a penalty at the first attempt.
The visitors’ best chance to get into this game arrived early in the second half when a line-out drive came close, as did umpteen forward pick and drives as the Italians penned the home side into the corner. When the ball went wide, Hogg did brilliantly well to get his body under Angelo Esposito and the ball as the Italian winger went over in the corner.
Even when skipper John Barclay was sent to the bin on 49 minutes the short-handed Scots held out, Hogg again the hero with a tackle on Esposito that forced an ugly offload that full-back Edoardo Padovani could only knock on through his own legs with the line begging. The crowd cheered, although whether for Hogg’s heroics or the Italian gaffe was difficult to say.
The game was creaking along in such agonising slow motion that even the referee was forced to beg the two skippers tor “more positive play”, voicing what pretty much everyone inside the stadium was thinking. The home side responded.
The damp drizzle didn’t help lift the general malaise but Jones did, sparking Scotland into life midway through the first half. The speedy centre broke the line twice in Scotland’s best assault of the match, slipping the second time and injuring himself, but the move only ended with Ali Price’s pass sending Russell over the try line on the left flank as the stand-off picked a canny line between two blue shirts.
Scotland already had points on the board, thanks to an early penalty from Hogg, and the ten-point lead looked a handy one after Russell converted his own try from the touchline.
Italy could have been in the hunt had they kicked the three penalties they attempted in the opening half but Carlo Canna’s attempts at goal were lucky to hit the ground never mind the target, and Italian belief went west along with those chances.
With one try chalked up, the Scots pressed home their advantage and scored a second before the break. This one falling to Scott, on the pitch for Jones. With a penalty advantage as insurance, Price chipped into the dead-ball area, Hogg palmed the ball backwards and Scott was on hand to claim the score a mere ten minutes after making his first appearance in this championship.
The start of the second half saw Murrayfield bathed in weak spring sunshine but it was enough to warm the visitors, who enjoyed their best period of the match, but a mixture of gross incompetence and stout Scottish defence meant they remained pointless.
With Barclay restored to the field of play just before the hour mark, the Scots set about securing the bonus point try. A chip kick from Hogg was carried back over his own try line by unlucky No.13 Tommaso Benvenuti to gift an easy try to Scotland’s poacher Tim Visser and the Scots had left themselves 18 minutes to get the bonus-point fourth try. They needed just ten.
After a long, slow, patient, multi-phase build-up by the forwards, the ball was moved wide right where Hogg delayed to perfection his pass to Tommy Seymour and the crowd quit their Mexican wave to make themselves heard.