Six Nations: Horne error spoils Scots performance

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Horne’s late error spoiled an otherwise competent, if non-inflammable, performance

WE KNEW what Scotland’s new stand-off Peter Horne meant when he said he wouldn’t be trying to “set the heather alight” at Murrayfield yesterday – at least we thought we did. There was modesty in his words, and some polite deference, and maybe he was keen to talk up the flair of his team-mates in the hope it would take some of the pressure off himself.

Peter Horne showed his nerves as he was forced to fill in for suspended Glasgow team-mate Finn Russell. Picture: Jane Barlow

Peter Horne showed his nerves as he was forced to fill in for suspended Glasgow team-mate Finn Russell. Picture: Jane Barlow

But, all the same, what were No.10s for? The very best of them were gorse-enflamers, bracken-burners, scrub-igniters. Barry John and John Rutherford never stepped on to a pitch without a box of Swan Vestas stuffed in the pockets of their shorts. And with Scotland needing a win – the only win they were realistically ever going to achieve this season, nodded all the sages – a spot of pyromania of a late February afternoon wasn’t going to go amiss. You had to wish the boy Horne good luck.

Well, he was content early on to move the ball around, nothing flash, but that didn’t matter too much because Mark Bennett read well for an interception and sprinted 50 yards for the first try to add to Greig Laidlaw’s opening-minute penalty. “This could be 40-nil today – the Italians are hopeless,” one of those sages remarked, just before Italy scored with their first meaningful play.

The Italians had targeted this game. They like occasionally beating Scotland: six times in 15 years is more than decent. They were without their combustible, wild-haired prop, Martin Castrogiovanni, who had been bitten on the nose by a dog. As excuses go for a rugby player, that’s on a feeble par with the schoolboy’s one about the homework being eaten by the family pet. But Italy were still able to muster plenty of hair, not least through Joshua Furno, the lock with the locks, who capitalised on driven ball for a try in the corner.

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This was a must-win for coach Vern Cotter, just like Samoa in the World Cup. He obviously doesn’t want to lose the rest, and his players are endeavouring not to lose these games like no Scotland team has endeavoured in recent times, but these are two stand-or-fall matches. The team had made all the right noises before this one, Sean Lamont registering his extreme dischuffedness at the “valiant losers” tag. A boring three-nil would do if it brought a win, he said.

Well, we knew what he meant, but this was the biggest-ever crowd for a Six Nations against Italy and the people wanted to see the referee play a full 80 minutes for a change and they wanted to see the ball being thrown around. Then Horne, who’d been concentrating on the basics, lit one of his matches, springing Bennett with a deft flat pass and from the subsequent penalty Laidlaw increased the lead.

But Italy refused to do the decent thing and lie down and an outrageous Sergio Parisse popped pass demonstrated their ambition. Then came a bizarre try which Federico Fellini could not have scripted better. Kelly Haimona’s penalty looked to be a hopeless effort only to change flight as if being remote-controlled and the ball boinged off an upright. Laidlaw seemed best-placed for the rebound but was overwhelmed by the syllables in Giovanbattista Venditti’s name, never mind all the letters. The game didn’t look like 40-nil anymore. Even Lamont’s three-nil seemed like swank.

The Scottish backs had been smart but there were problems up front, with scrums and lineouts messed up, and there was a worrying lack of vim at the start of the second half. A tricky game was getting trickier by the minute as Scots passes went astray, a flaw we thought the team had eradicated.

The Italian forwards were definitely displaying more grunt and the whole stadium appeared to shake with Simone Favaro’s thunderous hit on Alex Dunbar. We wondered if the tackle would be a turning point in the match, even though replacement Tommaso Allan missed a kickable penalty.

Scotland rallied – finally – with the ball sticking to hands again and Horne was prominent in the pressure which led to another Laidlaw penalty. But this had not been pressure compared to what the visitors would inflict on Scotland in the final ten minutes. As the rain lashed down, the Italians smashed forward. The home side were struggling in the mauls but even at the death Scotland had a chance to get out of the hole Italy had dug for them, only for Horne to miss his kick to touch. There was a sense of inevitability about the penalty try which gave the Italians only their second-ever victory on the road.

In the first in 2007, also at Murrayfield, they scored three tries in the time it takes to pronounce Giovanbattista Venditti’s name. Yesterday’s three delayed them a bit longer but, to chants of “Italia!”, the win was celebrated wildly. Scotland had made too many mistakes and in the end were out-battled. Horne had been true to his word – he didn’t start fires – but that is not to criticise the fellow, who didn’t put a foot wrong until that fluffed punt and might have been man of the match otherwise.

No one else torched the heather. And as for making the haggis jump out of their burrows – forget it.