THAT was more like it. Coach Scott Johnson has claimed that Scotland are not as bad as some critics would have it and the players proved as much this afternoon.
Scotland - Tries: Visser, Scott, Hogg, Lamont Cons: Laidlaw 4 Pens: Laidlaw 2
Italy - Try: Zanni Con: Burton Pen: Orquera
Scotland bucked a six-match losing streak in this Championship and they did so in some style with four well-taken tries, the most they have scored in the Six Nations since the 2003 match against the same opposition.
With Warren Gatland looking on from the stand, some of the home team players on view offered a timely reminder of their abilities to the Lions’ coach, with Stuart Hogg adding to his already illustrious reputation with another try, this one from fully 90 metres. Further scores came from Tim Visser, the outstanding Matt Scott and veteran Sean Lamont, who’s enthusiasm never wanes. Greig Laidlaw, pictured below right, finished the game with a flawless kicking performance of six from six, four conversions, two penalties and a man of the match award.
Whatever happens on Sunday, Ireland will start the game against Scotland in a fortnight’s time as firm favourites, but at least the home team will go into that encounter brimming with confidence.
The backs scored the tries but the match was won up front as usual where the passion and commitment that has been absent in recent months was back with a vengeance. Time and again the Scots rocked the Azzurri backwards in the tackle. But the Scots also played some smart rugby. They constantly slowed the Italian ball, as Sergio Parisse admitted afterwards with a mixture of admiration and frustration. Stung by the criticism from Twickenham, this was the reaction everyone was looking for.
Rob Harley was hugely influential throughout, the big flanker making an impressive first start for Scotland, but even he was overshadowed by skipper Kelly Brown, who enjoyed one of his best games in a Scotland shirt. If the Melrose man is not a genuine openside flanker he did a very convincing impression of one.
This display was far from perfect – defence coach Matt Taylor will be annoyed by Italy’s late try from an attacking scrum – but it was light years removed from the flat performance in Rome last season when these two teams last met. The Scots threw themselves into the breakdown like men on a mission and it showed in the turnover statistics which Scotland won 9-3. If you win the collisions, you go a long way towards winning the match and it wasn’t just the breakaways. Matt Scott won one crucial turnover and everyone was on their worst behaviour when it came to the contact battle, twisting the laws of the game every which way.
It worked. The Scots largely negated the big Italian runners, who rarely threatened, although they rode their luck from time to time, not least with Hogg’s try early in the second half which was a 14-point turnaround.
Ruaridh Jackson brought his mixed bag of the brilliant and the baffling, kicking poorly from hand, but slicing open the Italian defence as early as the second minute and he delayed his pass to Tim Visser just long enough to take Orquera out of the game and allow the big winger a run to the line for Scotland’s opening try on 29 minutes.
Italy scored a penalty late in the first 40 and trailing 13-3 at the half-time break, Laidlaw kicked two penalties before Visser’s opening touchdown, they were down but by no means out of this match. Ten minutes later it was all over bar the cheering as Scott and then Hogg both scored tries to grace any game.
First up the Scots unveiled a training-field move from an attacking lineout. Lamont ran a dummy line, Maitland ran a canny line and Scott finished off with great aplomb from 30 yards out, but only after juggling the pass. The crowd went wild but there was more to come, even if the Scots got a little of the luck that seemed to have deserted them in recent times.
Italy were on the charge with their best move of the match and Orquera was screaming towards the Scottish tryline with Tommaso Benvenuti inside him and only the full-back to beat. Hogg took a calculated gamble, he anticipated the pass perfectly and snatched the ball out of thin air ten yards from his own try line before setting off upfield like a man in a hurry. He stepped inside one Italian and then picked an outwards arc that took him majestically all the way to the Italian line with the crowd roaring their approval.
The match was won but the Scots were far from finished. Having already combined for one try, Maitland and Scott thought they had a second when the winger picked another good line to send the centre diving over in the right hand corner only for the referee to indicate a forward pass.
Allesandro Zanni grabbed a late score for the visitors after a backrow move from an attacking scrum but there was still time for Lamont to strike. The Italians guddled the ball at the base of the breakdown and the leggy centre was first to react, he picked up the ball and showed everyone a clean pair of heels to score under the posts with the Italians complaining long and loud to the referee.
It was music to Scotland’s ears as they finally showed their true potential. The trick is backing it up in two weeks time against Ireland.
Scotland: Hogg (Evans 72 min), Maitland, Lamont, Scott, Visser; Jackson, Laidlaw (Pyrgos 75 min), Grant (Low 60 min), Ford, Murray (Cross 70 min), Gray, Hamilton (Kellock 66 min), Harley, Brown (Denton 70 min), Beattie.
Italy: Masi, Venditti, Benvenuti, Canale, McLean; Orquera (Burton 50 min), Botes (Gori 50 min); Lo Cicero (De Marchi 60 min), Ghiraldini (Giazzon 60 min), Castrogiovanni, Geldenhuys (Pavanello 60 min), Minto, Zanni, Favaro (Derbyshire 69 min), Parisse.
Referee: Jaco Steyn (SAFU). Attendance: 50,247.