IF ANYONE had assured you on Saturday morning that Scotland would beat Italy, you might have admired their optimism.
If anyone had said they would score four tries and win by more than 20 points, you would surely have dismissed their opinion as coming from someone with little or no knowledge of rugby.
Never mind winning 34-10 in style. Merely winning would have been enough for most of us. Winning because Greig Laidlaw scored one penalty more than Luciano Orquera: that would have done.
Instead, even by half-time we were looking at something grander. There was still a nagging worry then, because Orquera had got the Italians on the scoreboard in the last minute before the break, but even so, 13-3 at that stage was pretty reassuring.
When was the last time Scotland had held a double-figure lead at the halfway point of a Six Nations game? Some of us tried to jog our memories and find the answer to that one as the teams trooped off. We were still scratching our heads when they came back out.
It certainly does not happen often. And the deadly manner in which the home team began the second half is an even rarer occurrence. Matt Scott scored three minutes in, then Stuart Hogg got another a few minutes later.
Laidlaw converted both tries to make it 27-3, and, with fully half an hour to play, the match was over. It’s the sort of response you dream about. The sort that obliterates any hope the opposition may have gleaned from taking the last score of the first half.
It happens every week at some level in team sports. It happened in last year’s Scottish Cup final, for example, when Hearts, having lost a goal just before the break to take a 2-1 lead into the second half, scored twice within five minutes of the resumption to crush Hibernian’s hopes of a fightback. But it just does not happen that often in Scotland’s favour, which is why this was one of the most satisfying afternoons at Murrayfield since its redevelopment in 1994.
Incidentally, the score in the first international held in the national stadium when it reopened that year was also 34-10 – but to a rampant South Africa. Scotland beat Ireland 38-10 in 1997, and 32-10 four years later, but one-sided results at Murrayfield have generally tended to be against the home team, not for them.
There was a one-sided result a week before the Italy game at Twickenham, of course, with England winning the Calcutta Cup match 38-18. In many ways that was a bitterly disappointing start to this year’s championship, but given Scotland’s record in London, and their form last year, it was hardly a shock.
When interim coach Scott Johnson made only two changes to the team between the first two matches – and both of those the result of injuries – he made it clear that stability was a prerequisite of improvement. Some things had gone right against England, notably the attacking flair shown by the back three of Hogg, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland, and the team could learn from those. Some things had gone wrong, above all at tackles and rucks, and they had to learn from them.
Well, they did. The back three were a threat every time they got the ball, and the collisions were far better. But, with Ireland next up a week on Sunday, Johnson knows that beating Italy is no more than a start, and that his team will have to keep improving if they are to have a chance of making it two wins in a row.
“There’s been a massive improvement, and you’ve got to remember how good England were too,” Johnson said after winning his first home game in charge of the team. “For us to achieve the next level, the level we want to get to, we need to do this against the guys that do it best.
“We did some really good things. We showed some potency. We’ve improved – but it’s not where we need to be.
“I keep saying you get seven chances to score a try in a game. In my time coaching that’s basically what you get, and you leave a few out there. The fact is that we made the most of the chances we got [against Italy]; we left a couple out there too.
“It was good attitude. We passed the ball. We got aggressive. So that’s one great win – it is – but it means nothing if we don’t back it up next time.”
Johnson’s acknowledgement of how good England were should also be applied to the Italians. The virtues they had displayed in their previous win over France were virtually nonexistent against Scotland.
In the first half they made far too many individual errors, so in the second they had to chase the game. The result was an impatience which verged on desperation, and which led to Hogg’s try from inside his own 22.
Scotland should have been the team under pressure: Italy the ones playing with confidence. But that’s not how it worked out, thanks to the usual formula for success in rugby – brute force up front and clinical finishing behind it. The nightclub bouncer knocks you out, then the doctor turns up and gives you a lethal injection.
The better the forwards perform against Ireland, the bigger the chance Hogg, Maitland and Visser will have of claiming those match-winning scores. But for that to happen, the improvement we witnessed on Saturday will need to be maintained, both by the pack and the backs, in defence and attack.
Johnson knows that beating the Italians is only the start, but he is also well aware that the back three have the chance to go on to be something special. “These kids have got gifts; they have,” he said. “They’ve got a long way to go and they’ve got ills in their game, but they’ve got some special gifts. Now if they combine the gifts and improve the ills we’ll have a pretty deadly back three.”
Given the level at which Ireland can play, there is a good chance – perhaps a probability – that the improvement will be maintained in the next game, yet Scotland will still lose. But after a debilitatingly dreadful 2012 for the national side, we are at least witnessing the rebirth of hope.