Blair Kinghorn proved the home hero, and not for the last time you fancy. The leggy winger grabbed a hat-trick of tries, the first for any Scot in the Six Nations, and he showed up well in open play, thoroughly deserving of his man of the match award. Good luck to Sean Maitland as he tries to win back the No.11 jersey.
You can only beat the team in front of you but today’s opposition were woeful, pedantic and utterly predictable. If Italy are improving, as coach Conor O’Shea insists, it is from a very low base. There wasn’t a single aspect of this match that they made their own. Strangely they scored first, a Tommaso Allan penalty after nine minutes, but after that early success they didn’t even threaten the Scottish line until the final ten minutes.
The visitors were trailing 33-3 deep inside the final quarter and it looked like Scotland might make it 50. Then to everyone’s surprise, and with the match long gone, Italy conjured up three quick fire tries, taking full advantage of replacement prop Simon Berghan’s sin-binning.
The Scots were sluggish in the first half, lacking in energy and accuracy and still they managed to finish off two of the umpteen scoring chances they had created. They would break the Italian line almost at will before inevitably stuffing up their attack, skying the ball into the crowd when presented with rugby’s equivalent of an open goal. Matters improved considerably in the third quarter when three more tries appeared between the 46th and 61st minutes and even then Stuart Hogg was desperately unlucky to have a sixth, long range, solo effort wiped off for a questionable crossing call.
If Kinghorn was the stand out player, Scotland’s stand-off wasn’t far behind. Finn Russell’s kicking game was spot on as he continually tormented the Italian back field. Pulling them up into the line before firing kicks in behind as soon as they vacated the space. Two of Scotland’s tries also owed everything to Russell’s boot, one in the air for Kinghorn’s first, the other along the ground for Hogg’s second-half score.
Sam Johnson had a satisfactory debut at inside centre and the forwards won the lion’s share of possession and 70 per cent of territory. Indeed the only time Italy got into the Scotland red zone in the opening half was thanks to a long kick from full-back Jayden Hayward...and they didn’t linger there long.
Both sides won their lineouts but the set scrums were a mess from start to finish with referee Luke Pearce speaking for everyone when he chided the front rows forwards: “We are here to play rugby not re-set scrums.” And still his pleas fell on deaf, cauliflower ears.
Even before Kinghorn opened Scotland’s account after 11 minutes the home side had already botched a couple of scoring chances, most notably when Sam Skinner, who didn’t last long after twisting his ankle, needed a double movement to get the ball over the line following a perfect driving maul.
The first of the winger’s tries came courtesy of Russell who, spotting Italian defenders jumping out the line, bypassed them beautifully with a perfectly judged kick-pass that Kinghorn collected on the left wing without breaking stride and he dived over untouched.
His second arrived ten minutes later after Italian centre Tommaso Castello spilled the ball just yards from his own try line. From the five metre set scrum the Scots feinted right but went left with Russell passing then wrapping around before Hogg drew three Italians like moths to the flame. His pass to Kinghorn bobbled along the floor and still the big winger had time to collect it and dive over in the exact same place.
Having fluffed the first conversion Laidlaw made no such mistake with the second and Scotland took a 12-3 lead into half-time; neither side happy with the way this match was unfolding.
Scotland returned for the second half with renewed purpose and vigour. They went on the attack and six minutes into the second half Hogg made one stick when the full-back was first to Russell’s clever grubber into the Italian dead ball zone, beating Angelo Esposito by the length of a fingernail. A little later Kinghorn struck again. Greig Laidlaw and Jamie Ritchie were involved in the build up, but the winger still sold a clever dummy before striding over the line for his hat-trick try.
Replacement Chris Harris was next up, taking advantage of Hogg’s counterattack to dive over just as the match moved into the final quarter.
That was when things turned turtle. Berghan was binned for a fourth consecutive penalty and the Italians finally hit their stride with three quick fire tries from scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani, replacement Edoardo Padovani and winger - Esposito inside the last ten minutes. It gave the final score a veneer of respectability that the pitiful Italian performance did not merit.