Scotland analysis: A good start, but conviction required

In low winter sunshine, snow on the approaches and the perimeter track and with a tingling crispness in the air, Scotland could be forgiven for feeling claustrophobic rather than invigorated – as if they were stuck inside a TV studio where one of those infernal quiz shows had just begun.
Scotland's Sam Johnson is brought down by Andrea Lovotti. Pic: SNS/Craig WilliamsonScotland's Sam Johnson is brought down by Andrea Lovotti. Pic: SNS/Craig Williamson
Scotland's Sam Johnson is brought down by Andrea Lovotti. Pic: SNS/Craig Williamson

In this scenario, with the spotlights searing, the players might have been tugging at their collars, sweat dripping from brows, as they confronted the age-old challenge: do we double our money or will we end up blowing the lot?

Doubling their money meant capitalising on last year’s three victories. Replicating them and doing more, maybe even winning the Six Nations. But, everyone agreed, they could just as easily finish fifth as first, and this was true of nearly all of their rivals in the most wide-open tournament for years. But maybe especially true of Scotland.

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Beating Italy would be a good start. Winning the opener when you’ve only done that twice in 19 previous attempts would be a stupendous start. You wouldn’t call the Italians the equivalent of the easy general knowledge round to settle the nervous contestant so he doesn’t embarrass his mum and granny watching at home – not when you’re Scotland at any rate. But the schedulers had been kind to us, no doubt about that, and Gregor Townsend’s men kicked off their tournament determined not to be tripped up by a question that they would be expected to breeze through.

The hope was that Edinburgh’s all-conquering front five would win the heavy lifting contest to allow the game to be orchestrated by Scotland’s French-based half-backs who in turn, with quick and cunning ball, would spring the Glasgow centre pairing of Huw Jones and Sam Johnson and tries would soon follow.

Well, Jones has thrilled in EH12 many times but not always on other occasions, and Johnson hadn’t even been here before, at least not in a Scotland shirt. As the debutant qualifying on residency grounds, and with more familiar candidates for the position injured or out of form, the lad from Queensland was our phone-a-friend option. Or phone-a-cobber.

The first thing Johnson did was impressive: a swing of the hips taking out three Italians. The second wasn’t bad either: a long pass to Tommy Seymour, almost leading to a score.

In typical Aussie fashion Johnson had been endearingly unabashed describing his journey to his adopted country and Murrayfield. “I was fat, just turned 22 and I was thinking: ‘Oh, two years in Scotland where I can ride the wave a bit longer and don’t have to join the real world’,” he remarked. It is not known if the Princess Royal, stopping longest to chat to him before kick-off, asked whether he missed “sitting in the corner of the changing-room for six months watching Netflix on a phone”.

In the real world of a real Six Nations challenge from Scotland yesterday, Johnson continued to be a tidy, busy, gliding presence, but had to watch as last season’s new boy, Blair Kinghorn, plundered the opening two tries, the first when he gobbled up a Russell punt and galloped for the line.

Italy, so often majoring on the scrum, were throwing it around the backs for a change, perhaps encouraged by the previous campaign’s near miss against the Scots in Rome, and they actually led for a while through a penalty, captain Sergio Parisse being turned upside down in an illegal tackle, which was no way to treat a craggy legend making a record 66th Six Nations appearance, but then the home team mean business this season.

Scotland have to. Potential, promise, progress. They have to lengthen their calling-card. It’s anybody’s Six Nations and also a World Cup year. But Townsend must have been disappointed with how the performance went flat after Kinghorn’s rapid-fire double, especially given his desire for them to become the fastest in world rugby.

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Johnson was first to shine after the restart, a grub-kick almost finding Kinghorn for his hat-trick. Then a few minutes later Russell reinforced his football skills with a dink which Hogg turned into a try – just – though none of the action replays convinced the gaggle of excitable Italian journos.

Kinghorn’s hat-trick wasn’t long in coming, a neat Russell pick-up and flip-pass sparking the break. Kinghorn still had some ground to cover, but three of his Gigantor strides made this look easy.

Did we say easy? Right after a sweet but seemingly futile rendition of Volare from their fans, Italy promptly roused themselves and crossed the Scottish line three times. Now, the $64,000 Question was a TV quiz show back in the 1950s. Applied to the Six Nations – can Scotland triumph? – we didn’t find the answer here. But Kinghorn and Johnson can come back next Saturday when they’ll get to compete for a really big prize – beating Ireland.