SCOTLAND ended their long losing streak at the seventh time of asking against Italy in Turin last night but, as is often the case with these two teams, the match had little to recommend it, with the only excitement generated by the narrow gap on the scoreboard.
With Italy leading 12-9 inside the final ten minutes of the match the Scots suddenly woke from their slumbers and introduced some urgency to the play. They did nothing more that hold on to the ball long enough for space to open up for Matt Scott on the right flank but that proved enough on the night and the classy centre sent Henry Pyrgos over the line with an inside pass that was an action replay of his try in the Pro12 final.
Weir added the conversion to sit alongside his three first-half penalties. All of Italy’s points came from the boot, three penalties by Tomasso Allan and one boomer from the boot of Gonzalo Garcia from 50 yards or more. Barbarians rugby this wasn’t.
It was an evening of mixed emotions for the Scots who won their first match in 2015 despite being outplayed for long periods; head coach Vern Cotter has work to do ahead of the World Cup.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne kicked superbly from hand and the new flanker John Hardie had a busy evening, rarely far from the ball, until he was replaced with cramp on 55 minutes. But several old issues raised their head again.
Both teams took it in turns to lose lineouts, Richie Gray doing most of the damage as the visitors plundered the Italian throw, but Scotland were far from perfect in this respect. And while the Scots won a penalty at the first set scrum in both halves of the match, it was an area that Italy otherwise bossed with all too painful results on the scoreboard.
Mike Cusack was handed the No.3 shirt with instructions to drop anchor but he struggled to do so, conceding at least three scrum penalties with points coming from one of them. The big man also coughed up an utterly unnecessary penalty just yards from the Italy line for sealing off a ruck and so spoiling Scotland’s best chance of a first-half try.
Matters improved following the introduction of WP Nel into the action on 46 minutes, but tighthead continues to be one massive migraine for Cotter’s brains trust. In short the coach needs more than one tighthead and it isn’t obvious he has that luxury.
For long periods the Italians looked the more purposeful and dangerous side with the ball in hand. They won a worrying number of one-on-one battles, bumping and twisting out of tackles and just occasionally barreling their way right through them. It was just their inability to hold on to the ball in the opposition red zone that prevented further damage on the scoreboard.
They set up two attacking mauls in the first half. The first resulted in three long-range points for Gonzalo Garcia and the second resulted in a break-out by the muscular No.8 Samuela Vunisa, with able support from scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani, and only a flying tackle by Duncan Weir followed by another handling error lifted the siege.
When Jim Hamilton collapsed a maul in the second period it looked for a moment as if referee JP Doyle was going to his pocket.
Towards the end of the first half the Italians made to set up another attacking maul but Vunisa inexplicably broke off and instead the Italian forwards spent the final few minutes of the half pulverising the Scottish defenders who did well to keep their line intact even if Gray conceded the penalty that allowed Allan to level the scores at 9-9.
Italy started the second half where they left off the first and the TMO was called into action after Martin Castrogiovanni, recently called off the bench, was just short. With a brand new front row and a five-metre scrum, the Italian crowd roared their team on, only for Scotland to get the nudge and a penalty gave the Scots a get-out.
Allan kicked Italy into a thoroughly deserved 12-9 lead, their first of the evening, on the 61st minute which also proved just the kick in the pants that Scotland needed.
Hamish Watson almost put Peter Horne away before Pyrgos struck with just six minutes of the match remaining and the sparse sprinkling of Scots inside the Olympic Stadium were able to breath easily again.
Italy: Masi; Venditti, Benvenuti (McLean 67), Garcia, Sarto; Allan, Palazzani; Aguero (Rizzo 48), Giazzon (Ghiraldini 48), Cittadini (Castrogiovanni 48), Geldenhuys (capt), Bernabo (Bortolami 51), Zanni, Minto, Vunisa.
Scotland: Tonks; Lamont, Vernon (Horne 67), Scott, Hughes (Hoyland 62); Weir, Hidalgo-Clyne (Pyrgos 61); Reid, McInally, Cusack (WP Nel 46), Gray, Hamilton, Strokosch (capt), Hardie (Watson 55), Ashe.
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU).