IN THREE words, Scotland winger Sean Lamont spelled out the feeling of the dressing room after they finished the Castle Lager Test Series with a last-gasp victory: “We were lucky.”
The 32-year-old combined pleasure and pain when he reflected on Scotland’s final match, the team having failed to replicate the intensity of the previous week’s showing against South Africa in Nelspruit.
The Scots allowed inconsistency to creep back into their play but came out victorious for the first time on tour. They were again caught out at the start, just as in the defeat by Samoa, and lost a try due to slipshod defending.
Italian debutant Leonardo Sarto the benefactor just 50 seconds after the whistle and Scotland then see-sawed through a match with a strong forward pack and enterprising play producing good first-half tries by Matt Scott and Lamont. Those were answered by a penalty try by the Italians after three collapsed scrums – underlining both the Azzurri superiority in the set-piece and Scotland’s propensity for conceding penalties.
But Scotland never gave up and, in the final few minutes, Welsh referee Leighton Hodges surprisingly awarded them a scrum penalty, with replacement Jon Welsh playing a key role. They set up camp in the Italian 22 but time ran down, passes went awry, Italy’s defence held firm and the hooter signalling time up sounded.
Greig Laidlaw’s Scotland held their nerve, though, and pounced with a final attack. Alasdair Strokosch exploited an uncharacteristically poor decision to come out of the line in defence by Italy skipper Sergio Parisse and nipped through the gap from 15 metres for a try.
Laidlaw, back at stand-off for the final quarter, converted from right of the posts to cap another faultless and match-winning kicking display, repeating his feat in Samoa a year ago. Lamont celebrated but could hardly believe it.
“Lucky, yes,” he said. “There is not a shadow of doubt about that. We tried our hardest to muck it up but the boys showed determination to squeak out a win. Greig touched on it in house. We are sick of the rollercoaster ride we go on and we were not clinical enough out there. We had the fitness, but the penalty count was against us and that kills us.
“All the same, the win makes it a happier journey home. Never doubt our perseverance. We will dog it out till the end. We could and should have put the game away by half-time and to give away that first try in under a minute was stupid. The early tries cost us against Samoa, but, thankfully, against Italy we picked ourselves up quicker.”
Consistency remains Scotland’s Holy Grail. Lamont was the most senior figure on tour, now with 79 caps, and he acknowledged that he was guilty of great swings of consistency as a younger player. Now a reliable part of the team in attack and defence, he accepts his role as a leader and, insisting he has his sights set on responding to the fresh competition and pushing for the 2015 World Cup, retains a vital honesty and determination to drive a team towards consistency sooner rather than later.
“Yes, I’ve improved with experience, and this tour has been good for Scotland to develop more players. Capping ten for Scotland is definitely good for the future.
“But, when I look back at these games, I see simple handling and physicality problems. A lot of soft tackles against Samoa and Italy that were not there against South Africa.
“These things, whether it is your first or 100th cap, are not good enough. Making tackles? The boys do that week in, week out. International level is another step up and you still have to be able to do it. Every man is physical enough to make the hits but are not doing it. It is a mental thing.”
There is little doubt that adrenalin produced by fear of a humiliation has fuelled great Scots displays, witnessed again in the energy against the Boks and drop-off against teams ranked around the same level – which could easily have sent Scotland home with three defeats out of three.
“It should not be like that,” added Lamont. “We should have it right every time. It is down to the individual to make sure he is ready to go from first to last. There was a difference in the attitude starting off against Samoa, against South Africa and against Italy. I don’t know what it was but we do have to nail it down.”
Lamont turned to a boxing analogy when asked for the most significant lesson the Scottish players would take from this tour. “The big lesson is that we need to punch smart rather than swing haymakers, because that is what counts.”