THE beauty of sport is such that one can never predict what we might witness on entering the stadium and even the most optimistic failed to see this coming.
On the back of a run of four straight defeats, and worse, three wins in the last 21 Six Nations matches, Scotland produced the response their coaches demanded to a depressing 38-18 drubbing at the hands of England on the opening day of the 2013 championship. The four-try victory was created around a central theme, one of a new vigour, understanding and desire to win ball in the tackle contest which ran like a rich vein through the team from the redoubtable prop Ryan Grant to Stuart Hogg, the effervescent full-back.
Grant, who played for 30 minutes after suffering a painful hip knock in the first half, Ross Ford and Euan Murray, with five focused forwards behind them, made a better fist of the scrum against a powerful Italy pack, motivated further by legendary Andrea Lo Cicero’s 100th Test appearance. The lineout was also well led by Jim Hamilton, but the real improvement came in the next phase, and the phase after that where, led by their back row, Scotland laid Saltire-strewn bodies on the line to stop Italians and create a thunderous momentum from which to attack.
While locks Richie Gray and Hamilton were resolute and Kelly Brown, Rob Harley and Johnnie Beattie put in a fine shift to outshine a good Italian back row, few players epitomised the turnaround inside a week better than Matt Scott, and few moments showed the value more clearly than when the youngster battered into a ruck deep inside the Scottish half in the 23rd minute, taking out two Italians and team-mate Sean Lamont in the process. It provided the launchpad for Scotland to attack into the Italian half, and when they did – at a subsequent ruck – Scott used his strength and guile to force a penalty for holding-on on the ground.
From that award, the Scots kicked to touch, won the lineout through Harley, the Six Nations debutant, mauled into the 22 and won another penalty. Greig Laidlaw converted from wide on the left, to put Scotland 6-0 ahead, and it was in this period that the pendulum swung firmly in Scotland’s favour. He was far from the only player to put in such notable contributions, but there was a sense that if the inside centre could do it so effectively, then there was no excuse for anyone else holding back.
Laidlaw had opened the scoring with a penalty after 14 minutes and Scott was denied the game’s first try only by the pace and brilliant tackling of Italy scrum-half Tobias Botes, who got to Scott and took him into touch a metre or so from the left-hand corner.
But Scotland were not to be denied. Italy cleared their lines from that pressure, but from the next lineout the Italian defence was pulled across the field and Hogg intelligently straightened up with just Tim Visser outside him and an Italian line waiting for them. It was recycled well by forwards eager to make their mark, and Ruaridh Jackson then made a half-break and off-loaded superbly to Visser, and this time the big left wing had space. He took off, stepped inside Botes and had too much gas for Sergio Parisse to catch him to skip over the line for an impressive fifth try in seven Test matches.
If the Scots’ performance was typified in Scott’s display, the trials of Luciano Orquera, the Italian fly-half, proved to be a microcosm of the Azzurri’s day. Where in Rome against France he had seemed to come of age, on Saturday the fates conspired to hand him the joker card. An early goal-kick came back off a post before a bouncing ball hit his shin and bobbled into touch in the lead-up to Laidlaw’s first penalty. He was left sore after early tackles and after a superb earlier kick his next restart failed to go ten metres, but his and Scott’s contrasting fortunes were at their most clear early in the second half.
Ruaridh Jackson, the Scotland fly-half shown faith by Scott Johnson, enjoyed a better performance behind a pack going forward, mixing it up throughout the day. He called an intricate backs move that had several variations, and got it bang on by asking wing Sean Maitland to attack the line between him and Scott. The Kiwi did so, Sean Lamont ran inside on a dummy line to hold the Italian midfield, and Scott took off after Maitland. When Maitland was caught, Scott was on his shoulder, took the pass, after a bobble, and zeroed in on Orquera, the diminutive fly-half being ‘“hid” away from the defensive coal-face and suddenly looking vulnerable. Scott fixed him and then accelerated on an arc around the covering defender, his socks around his ankles and his legs resembling a sprinter’s as he finished off the perfect training ground move.
Four minutes later Orquera was in the vanguard of an Italian riposte, the Scottish defence stretched out of shape, and the fly-half primed to give the scoring pass. Where last week he did the same to put Martin Castrogiovanni in for the match-winning score against France, this time Scottish full-back Hogg saw it coming and lunged for his pass to Tommaso Benvenuti.
Hogg’s fingers clutched the ball and pulled the ball to his chest and after ducking and diving through the blue jerseys found himself in open prairie. With 80 metres to go, he pinned the ears back and sprinted for all he was worth, and the stunned Italians could not catch him. Orquera was substituted while Laidlaw converted to put Scotland 27-3 ahead.
Fine margins. Fine line between success and failure. How often has that been the consolatory comment emerging from Scottish camps? But on this day the roles were reversed. There was much that Scotland will look at when they review this performance and shake their heads at, with mistakes and daft ill-discipline costing them territory and ball too often in the second half, as a sense of relief seemed to dull the senses and hand the initiative back to Italy.
But Sean Lamont then did what many teams have done to Scotland in these types of occasions, rubbed salt in the wounds, by picking up a loose ball on halfway and sprinting clear to score his ninth try, in 73 Tests, and the faultless Laidlaw added the extras.
But, just as Orquera’s penalty in the first half came from poor game management by Scotland, so Italy should never have been given the platform to finish off the game with a try of their own. Alessandro Zanni’s well-worked but score six minutes from time rewarded Italian endeavour, and an unfortunate trip by Beattie on Gray’s leg, while replacement prop Geoff Cross suffered for his team-mates’ rash of penalties with a yellow-card in the final seconds.
That might appear harsh, considering this was a far better outcome than any had forecast. The performance was a significant improvement, one that made a good Italy side seem poor and revealed Scotland’s new finishing ability, and the players deserve the plaudits that came their way for responding convincingly to their Twickenham torment against a side riding high after their Roman win. It will lift the nation and while many tickets were given away free to help to fill the stadium on Saturday, the chances are those 50,000 will be back and the final 4,000 briefs remaining for the Wales and Ireland games now sell swiftly.
But the sobering note of caution comes from the fact that this remains just one game, one performance and one win. The recent Six Nations record moves to four wins in 22 matches. The challenge now is to turn it into something more tangible than a traditional Scottish one-off.