ALASDAIR Strokosch pulled victory from the jaws of defeat with the last act of the game to ensure a sudden upswing in the Scottish mood.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Scott, Lamont, Strokosch. Cons: Laidlaw 2. Pens: Laidlaw 3. Italy: Tries: N Sarto, pen try. Cons: Di Bernardo 2. Pens: Di Bernardo 5.
As the hooter sounded for the end of the match, Scotland’s struggles in the set-piece, inability to hold on to ball through phases, and to time their passes well enough to maintain momentum in attacks, seemed certain to ensure a third Test defeat on the trot and consequent slip to 12th in the world rankings. But, if this squad has shown anything in the past three weeks, it is that they possess deep reserves of resilience.
Six players have gone down to injury and Johnnie Beattie started this final match with his shoulder so heavily strapped that he had a lop-sided, Quasimodo-like appearance.
The game was delicately balanced throughout, with either side enjoying periods on the front foot and four tries shared before the final denouement. The final hooter seemed to give the Scots a new lease of life and, when Henry Pyrgos took a quick tap penalty and Strokosch grasped the ball inside the 22, what had previously been a solid wall of blue parted.
Italy skipper Sergio Parisse created a dog-leg by running ahead of his fellow defenders and Strokosch did not need a second invitation, racing into the gap and away from the despairing lunge of Lorenzo
Cittadini, to score behind the posts. That pulled Scotland back to 28-29, and Greig Laidlaw stepped up to convert, just as he had last year to seal a similar victory in Samoa.
The final drama was a contrast to what had gone before. The first half had a loose, end-of-season feel about it. A sense of summer sevens under Pretoria’s blue sky and bright sunshine and in front of a paltry crowd of around 5,000.
The opening try came after just 50 seconds. The kick-off up the middle was lost by full-back Peter Murchie under pressure and Italy seized on the chance to build an early attack, which ended with debutant Leonardo Sarto beating Tom Heathcote for speed on an angled run.
Scotland responded and, after Matt Scott failed to put Tommy Seymour in at the right corner, Scott tracked a David Denton burst and neat off-load to run through the Italian defence in the 22 and get in under the posts for his third Test try and second in two games. Denton put in a fine performance as Scotland’s chief ball-carrier, alongside Tim Swinson, but Scotland’s scrum was in trouble early on, handing Italy penalties which Alberto
di Bernardo turned into points.
Interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson spoke last week about how defence produces tries and that was well illustrated when Giovanbattista Venditti tried to run ball from his own line, lost it in the tackle and Laidlaw superbly off-loaded to put Sean Lamont in for the game’s third try with 17 minutes on the clock.
A Laidlaw penalty put Scotland 17-10 up at the end of the first quarter, but old frailties continued, as Alastair Kellock and Alasdair Dickinson watched the next restart fall to the ground and a series of scrum collapses led to an Italian penalty try.
Scotland gradually worked their way back into the Italian half, their attack being given impetus by Swinson, Denton and Lamont, and a penalty award for offside against
Di Bernardo gave Laidlaw the chance to nudge Scotland 20-17 ahead.
Di Bernardo responded with a superb kick from halfway in the final minute of the half to level the score.
Scotland started the second half with points. The kick-off was caught by Robert Barbieri, but Lamont forced him to concede a penalty, which Laidlaw converted. But a ruck penalty against Denton saw Di Bernardo kick the scores level again just three minutes into the half.
Tim Visser replaced Seymour, and Henry Pyrgos came on for Heathcote, meaning a return to stand-off for Laidlaw, and Alex Dunbar brilliantly snuffed out an Italian attack with a fine tackle on Andrea Masi and contest for the ball which earned a penalty.
Scott made another good break into the Italy 22 then Lamont nearly got in on the right, but Scottish support was sluggish as they tried to build phases. Dunbar lost a ball in the tackle, Visser dropped a pass and, as Italy began to empty their bench, replacing fledgling caps with hardened campaigners, the altitude seemed to be telling on the Scots.
Scott did get in under the posts but the final pass from Visser had gone slightly forward and the TMO ruled it out, and Di Bernardo nudged Italy 26-23 up from a lineout penalty. The Scots sent on Grant Gilchrist for lock Swinson and replaced Peter Murchie with Duncan Taylor at full-back, and Beattie was eventually replaced by Rob Harley after an incredible shift.
But set-piece penalties against Scotland continued and Di Bernardo punished Murray’s early charge at a lineout by extending Italy’s lead to 29-23. Scotland picked up the pace in the final ten minutes, mauling to the Italian line, Taylor going close and then Laidlaw losing the ball trying to dive over a ruck. Debutant Fraser Brown and Jon Welsh joined the fray, for Scott Lawson and Moray Low, and Welsh made a crucial impact to win a scrum penalty, which Laidlaw kicked to touch ten metres from the Italian line.
Scotland still seemed unable to turn their possession into enough points, but they never gave up and their determination was rewarded by one late lapse in the Italian defence, sniffed by Strokosch, who sent his Saltire-clad team into raptures with the match-winning try, and a first tour win.
Scotland: P Murchie; T Seymour, A Dunbar, M Scott, S Lamont; T Heathcote, G Laidlaw (capt); A Dickinson, S Lawson, E Murray, T Swinson, A Kellock, D Denton, A Strokosch, J Beattie. Subs: T Visser for Seymour 44mins, H Pyrgos for Heathcote 49, M Low for Dickinson 50, R Harley for Beattie 60, J Welsh for Low, F Brown for Lawson, both 72.
Italy: A Masi; L Sarto, L Morisi, A Sgarbi, G Venditti; A di Bernardo, T Botes; M Aguero, D Giazzon, M Castrogiovanni, L Cedaro, M Bortolami, J Furno, R Barbieri, S Parisse (capt).
Subs: L Ghiraldini for Giazzon, A De Marchi for Aguero, both 47mins, A Zanni for Bortolami, L Cittadini for Castrogiovanni, both 49, A Pavanello for Cedaro 52, G Canale for Morisi 53, L McLean for Sarto 60, A Chillon for Botes 69.
Referee: L Hodges (Wales).