Scotland’s biggest-ever winning margin in the RBS Six Nations Championship, by 34-10 against Italy at Murrayfield, had it roots in what scrum-half Greig Laidlaw called “my best ever week in a Scotland camp”.
Laidlaw, despite gaining his 15th cap, hadn’t previously tasted success in the tournament.
He said of the victory which featured tries by Tim Visser, Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont: “The win came at the end of the best week there has been for me in a Scotland camp. The way we prepared was outstanding. We brought it down to what it really means to play for Scotland in that jersey.
“The honesty session we had in the build-up wasn’t over the top or anything like that.
“Once you begin to see how much it means to represent Scotland, you are then 50 per cent of the way towards a good performance.”
Scotland absorbed plenty of pressure to ensure a win based partly on top-class opportunism. Italy, victors over France six days earlier, were no flops, but their talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse was harassed into more mistakes (often by debutant flanker Rob Harley) than he normally makes in a whole Championship. The orchestrator of that conquest over France failed to last 50 error-strewn minutes before being substituted.
There was certainly a killer instinct in a Scotland back line, given a superb platform by the rampant pack in which lock-forward Jim Hamilton clawed back a few much- needed credits.
Laidlaw added: “We are getting excited about what might lie ahead, but keeping feet on the ground as well. It was just a delight to give that kind of performance for coaches Johnno (Scott Johnson), Matt Taylor and Dean Ryan, who I have been impressed by.”
Johnson is an interim appointment and forwards guru Ryan insists he will stand down at the end of the tournament. So, would Laidlaw urge him to stay?
“We can only try to keep winning games and if they are the guys for the job then absolutely, they are great coaches. We have to savour a win, but preparations for the Irish match next will be thorough in the knowledge that Scotland have had one-off victories before.
“All the worry and stress and pressure . . . to get that win makes it worthwhile and if I am being honest, I felt we had the game won after 20 minutes.
“Our defence controlled them and there was a huge work ethic from last week when we lost to England. I believe we got a grip of the game early and when the forwards play as well they did we are always going to create opportunities, especially in putting together a back line that will cause problems.
“Our scrum was outstanding and so, too, was some of the driving play around our defence. It was a tactic as well to kick for position. You don’t want to muck about – you don’t get any points for playing in your own half, that’s why we wanted to get out of there as quickly as we could.”
Once in attacking territory the most threatening of the home backs was Matt Scott who, as well as notching his first Test try, came close twice.
On the first occasion Scott was hauled down a metre short of the try-line and later a “scoring” pass from Sean Maitland was deemed marginally forward. Given such maturity, it was easy to forget Scott is still just 22.
Paying tribute to his Edinburgh colleague, Laidlaw said: “I’m hugely delighted for Matt who is a massive talent. Matt has all the attributes to be a world-class player.”
If Scott saw the try line looming from the moment he gathered a pass from Sean Maitland 35 metres out, Stuart Hogg’s second try in as many weeks was from much longer range.
“There were a couple of times when I saw a colleague disappearing off towards an unguarded try-line and it was a great feeling. We said beforehand we had guys who could go the length (of the pitch) and they showed that against Italy.”
Laidlaw, too, was in imperious goal-kicking form with his four conversions and two penalties making a haul of 14 points which was his best at Six Nations level though behind the 22 in a tour win against Fiji and 15 versus Tonga last November.
“Yes, the kicks were flying well, but they were the day beforehand in training, too. I had a feeling that all was good.
“It’s great to get my first Six Nations win at Murrayfield because it was in front of fans who deserved it as much as the team,” added Laidlaw.
Before scoring four tries for the first time in a Six Nations match since Kenny Logan, Jim McLaren, Chris Paterson and Jason White crossed in a 33-25 triumph over Italy at Murrayfield in 2003, the Scots opened with a 14th minute penalty by Laidlaw after fly-half Luciano Orquera had missed a fairly straight penalty attempt from 42 metres out.
Gradually the Scots began to find a rhythm and were further settled by a second Laidlaw penalty which helped move him up to 11th in the all time points charts on 120 and three behind kicking coach Duncan Hodge, before they treated a 50,000 crowd to a smash-and-grab try. Quick hands from Ruaridh Jackson saw Tim Visser in support and the wing had his fifth touchdown in seven starts.
Orquera’s penalty cut the gap to 13-3 at the interval, but whereas Scotland have been guilty of re-starting slowly, this time they were on the money.
If the try from Scott didn’t put Italy out of contention then the knockout blow was certainly delivered by Hogg on the intercept.
Scotland added another through Sean Lamont, who is now within one of becoming the 17th to register a double figure tally in dark blue. Alessandro Zanni had the final say with a try converted by Kris Burton and doubtless there will be some gnashing of teeth in the home squad for allowing their line to be crossed, but one of the few mistakes from a Scottish perspective could only be found on the official statistics that credited full back Stuart Hogg with winning a couple of lineouts.
Hogg, 20, might have enhanced still further a reputation as the golden boy of Scottish rugby with pure all-round talent, but that was definitely pushing things too far!
Otherwise a day to remember – and long overdue – as the previous best Six Nations win, by 32-10 against Ireland in 2001, was finally eclipsed.