IT’S not often Scotland fans get to leave BT Murrayfield when the only nagging regret is just missing out on the 50-point mark.
Saturday’s third World Cup warm-up Test proved to be just the tonic as the Scots cruised to a record 48-7 victory over an insipid Italy side, which was as much as the players involved could do before Vern Cotter and his coaching staff locked themselves away to decide on the final 31 who will go to the tournament in England in a couple of weeks.
It’s hard to tell if the events which unfolded so pleasingly on Saturday will have prompted any major rethink from Cotter, and the Kiwi was steadfastly giving nothing away after the match, but there were strong performances across the park.
Sean Lamont shared four of the six tries with his fellow wing Tim Visser and perhaps did enough to secure a place at a third World Cup, where he could potentially reach the 100-cap landmark.
After coming through a minor ankle injury scare in the warm-up, Stuart Hogg produced an electric display on his first hit-out of the summer and the centre pairing of Peter Horne and Mark Bennett functioned well, the latter proving he is back to full fitness with a lung-busting length-of-the-pitch run at the end for the final try.
In the highly competitive back-row battle, John Barclay could do no more, with a try capping an excellent all-round effort, but such is the intensity of competition there that it may not have been enough. The Scotland forwards enjoyed one of their most dominant days against the usually awkward Azzurri and prop Al Dickinson even managed to bag a rare man-of-the-match award for the oft-overlooked front-row grafters.
Back when the SRU PR machine decided that Scotland’s only home Test of the summer was to have a “beach party” theme the mind’s eye immediately began to picture torrential rain, howling wind and a sea of ponchos. In the end the Scottish weather even played ball for a change, with fine, if not exactly scorching, conditions attracting a healthy and vocal crowd.
Yes, Italy were dreadful, and France in Paris this Saturday will be a different matter altogether, but we are not a rugby nation who can afford to be insouciant on days such as these, and back-to-back wins have certainly provided a spring in the step at just the right time.
These sun-soaked warm-up games always have a slightly unreal feel about them, but the more familiar look to the Scotland line-up and Greig Laidlaw opting to kick for goal early on to provide a 3-0 lead reminded us that this was still a Test match.
After a tight affair in Turin, the first hint that this was going to be a much more comfortable proposition for the Scots came in the ninth minute when Finn Russell’s chip through was gathered well by Lamont, who went in at the right for the 13th try of his long Scotland career, Laidlaw converting for a ten-point lead.
While not quite on the level of Ian Madigan’s majestic cross-field kick into the hands of Luke Fitzgerald, it was a delightfully judged kick from Russell and proof again of the kind of mercurial magic the Glasgow Warrior brings to the pivotal stand-off position.
Italy steadied the ship slightly but ill-discipline continued to hurt them and Laidlaw nudged the scoreboard along nicely to 16-0.
Italy finally got a foot-hold into the game on the half-hour mark in slightly fortunate circumstances. With a penalty coming, Tommaso Allan’s tempting kick-through looked set to be gathered by Visser, but an unlucky collision with his skipper saw the ball go loose and it was gleefully gobbled up by Michele Campagnaro, Allan converting.
After watching his opposite No 7 Francesco Minto pinged to the sin-bin for a blatant offside, Barclay drove over for a try that was eventually confirmed by the TMO and Laidlaw added the extras to open up a 16-point lead.
The half ended amid slightly farcical scenes when Russell, seeing 40 minutes up on the stadium clock, kicked into touch thinking it was break time. The youngster learned the hard way that it is the referee who controls time as well as the game and Italy got the lineout.
After soaking up a bit of pressure, it was Scotland who actually threatened to make the most of the unexpected extra few minutes but that fizzled out and the interval did come.
With such a strong platform in place it was now all about the home side building on it and turning what already looked sure to be a win into the kind of commanding, thumping victory over a major nation that has become as rare as hens’ teeth at the home of Scottish rugby in recent years.
A long pass from Russell gave Visser the easiest of touchdowns on the left flank eight minutes after the restart, though Laidlaw narrowly missed the conversion that would have taken Scotland into the 30s.
Perhaps the frustration of that miss convinced Laidlaw to have another go when the Scots were awarded a kickable penalty – the successful effort taking the game beyond three converted tries for the by now beleaguered visitors.
Scotland have not been known as a prolific, free-scoring team for some time but one speciality they do seem to have to their name is a mastery of the interception try. Perhaps it stems from years of Scottish backs feeding on scraps of attacking opportunities, but they certainly have an eye for the gift and Lamont grabbed his second of the day when he pounced from close range.
Laidlaw was slightly wayward again with the conversion but left to cheers moments later after an impressive hour or so which surely cemented his grip on both the No 9 jersey and the captaincy.
At the other end, the defence was doing its job too and some great work to halt the Italians’ beloved driving maul after a lineout drained any remaining appetite for the fight from the visitors.
The weary Italians had one more push for the Scottish line, but the home defence was well organised and Luke McLean was the next to offer up a loose pass, which the predatory Visser was never going to say no to. The former Edinburgh winger, who moved to Harlequins at the end of the season, ran 80 yards to take the Scots past the previous record margin of victory (32 points) over opponents who have proved thorns in the side on too many occasions.
There was still time for Bennett to prove that he is back to full fitness as he completed a first full 80 minutes since injuring his shoulder, with an electric run from deep after seizing on yet another Italian error.
The Glasgow Warriors centre had a hat-trick-hunting Visser in support but had enough speed and stamina left in the tank to go all the way and put the seal on Scotland’s most complete and pleasing performance since last year’s autumn Test series.