Scotland got a King Kong-sized monkey off their backs in recording their first Six Nations win for two years with this somewhat flattering result in Rome.
It marked a first championship victory for a couple of new faces – WP Nel and John Hardie – and several not so new ones as well: Mark Bennett, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray.
It was an odd encounter, with Italy winning the battle for possession and territory but losing the overall war given their inability to turn pressure into points. The Scots dominated the opening exchanges, scored two good tries in the first 20 minutes and raced into a 17-3 lead, at which point we were all expecting a runaway win.
But Italy dominated the game either side of half time, scored a try through hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini on the half-hour mark and another from lock Marco Fuser 30 minutes later, at which point the home team had closed the gap to just six points and enjoyed all the momentum which swung this way and that in this see-saw of a match.
That Scotland got over the finish line was largely down to Greig Laidlaw’s accuracy off the tee. The Scotland skipper converted those two first-half tries scored by the twin Scottish flankers John Barclay and Hardie, and added a penalty.
After the break when the Italians held the whip hand the little scrummy knocked over four priceless penalties, one by one, almost every time the Scots ventured over the half-way line, to ensure the visitors kept their noses in front for the whole of the second half. He finished with 21 points to his credit with just one long-range miss with the last kick of the first half to blot his otherwise pristine copybook.
Tommy Seymour’s late touchdown, thanks to a sublime offload out the back of his hand by full-back Stuart Hogg, meant that Scotland’s final tally was their biggest score since the start of the Six Nations Championship back in 2000. With one bound, it was put to coach Vern Cotter, the Scots have shaken off their shackles and the sky’s the limit?
“No, no,” the coach protested, “there are no guarantees in the game. We are not going to see this as some sort of great release and Scotland is going to win every game for the next 20 years. It is not going to happen.
“That only comes through hard work and believing. If this game gives players belief we can prepare very well against France. I think we can play better than we did today. There are things we can improve on. The players can see that too. It was important that we didn’t go out there facing backwards and the players went into their shell.
“They didn’t. They scored two tries quickly. They wanted to apply and impose our game. We knew we would be tested in the ebbs and flow of the game and that was important. The next thing is France who bring us other things we have to adapt to.”
Once again Scotland had to make a late change to their line up with No 8 David Denton afflicted by a groin injury. He was replaced in the starting line up by Ryan Wilson, who made a very decent fist of things, and Wilson’s place on the bench was filled by Josh Strauss, who had already played 76 minutes for Glasgow against the Dragons on Thursday evening, less than 48 hours beforehand.
He was used in Rome but not until the last 13 minutes, for which he was probably grateful.
With so much at stake the Scots could have become defensively minded when the Italian fightback threatened to overwhelm them, aided by yellow cards for Russell and then Nel in the final quarter, but instead they kept attacking with the ball in hand, at one point from behind their own goal line, and were eventually rewarded with Seymour’s 77th-minute try.
“We found a way through and we didn’t go into our shells,” said Cotter. “Players looked to find solutions and they stayed connected. This is just the start. We are only just starting on this. This team can go a lot further. We are starting to see cohesion within the group. It does not give you guarantees but we know where we are. The important thing in life is knowing where we are. We know where we are. We will keep working hard.”
There are now two full weeks before France come to Murrayfield and the Scots will welcome them with a glint in their eye and a spring in their step following Saturday’s win but not before they had celebrated a rare Six Nations success old school-style.
“We will enjoy the evening because it has been a long time between drinks,” Cotter promised.
Too long, I think we can all agree.