In Dublin, Scotland had been under the cosh in the opening quarter but in Turin they raced into a 9-0 lead, thanks to the unerring boot of Duncan Weir and some ropey discipline from the hosts. The first three points arrived after just three minutes when Scotland won a rare scrum penalty and, with two more in quick succession, it looked like plain sailing only for the tide to turn as the Scots, under increasing pressure from the Italian pack, found themselves on the wrong side of the referee.
Gonzalo Garcia kicked a monster penalty that rebounded off the post but he got another opportunity just two minutes later as the Scots stopped an Italian maul illegally.
Tomasso Allan kicked Italy’s second when the Scots were pinged at a set scrum and the stand-off levelled the scores just before the break when Richie Gray was lured offside in a sustained Italian attack which should have resulted in more than three points, and surely would have done had Giovanbattista Venditti not drifted offside just before Allan’s prodded cross-field kick towards the right-winger.
“The first few times we got into their 22 in the first half we came away with points,” said centre Matt Scott, who topped off a solid performance by giving the pass that sent Pyrgos haring towards the Italian try line late in the game. “We went 9-0 up but then our discipline started letting us down, so we did need to dig deep. It was good in the end that we found the resilience to get that final try.
“When we went 9-0 up I thought we could take this game by the scruff of the neck and control it but we didn’t do that. Again we put ourselves in a position where it made it very difficult to win the game. Obviously, we came through and won it but we could very easily have lost that game, so we need to look at the points, especially early in the second half when we let them back into the game with cheap penalties.”
Scotland had lost the physical battle in the first hour, skipper Alasdair Strokosch admitting his team had been “touched up”, but at least they hung in there and limited the third-quarter damage to three points, again from the boot of Allan who kicked the hosts into a lead as a scrappy and featureless match moved into the final quarter. At least Italy’s fourth penalty prompted a furious response from the Scots, who started to play some rugby. With the set scrum operating as it should, thanks to Edinburgh’s front row, several other replacements made a suitable impact, including flanker Hamish Watson, who won one superb turnover in a tackle – the Italian prop did not realise he’d had his pocket picked until it was all over – and made one half-break before sending Peter Horne into acres of space, although the replacement centre did not quite have the gas to finish.
Pyrgos was the catalyst, according to his coach, picking up the pace of the game and spreading a little much-needed urgency through the Scottish ranks. The reward was the first win of the year for Vern Cotter’s team. Although he can not be entirely happy about the manner in which it arrived, at least there were individual performances of note. They included a good shift from John Hardie on his debut, his 14 tackles inside an hour evidence of his workrate, and Scott. The classy centre has been plagued by shoulder injuries for almost two years but he appears to have timed his World Cup run pretty much perfectly.
“Last time I started was the last game of the Six Nations and that was the last time I started any game of rugby, so I was fairly tired tonight,” said the Edinburgh midfielder. “They were tough conditions for everyone, it was humid and hot and I really felt it. But, speaking to a couple of guys who played last week, they felt much better this week having played 80 minutes last weekend, so I’m hoping that because I’ve blown the cobwebs away tonight I’ll be fitter for the next time.
“I thought I had a reasonably solid game,” he continued. “There were a couple of aspects that I would look at to work on, and there were a couple of times I was tired and I couldn’t get back into position as quickly as I normally would. But I just have to accept that I am not going to be as fit as I would be having played a few games, so I have just parked that up for the next time.”
Cotter must be tempted to wrap Scott in cotton wool for greater challenges ahead but the centre needs games to get back to his best and he is sure to start either at Murrayfield or, more likely, in Paris on Saturday week.
Italy: Masi, Sarto, G. Benvenuti, Garcia, Venditti, Allan, Palazzani, Aguero, Giazzon, Cittadini, Geldenhuys (c), Bernabo, Minto, Zanni, Vunisa. Replacements: McLean for G. Benvenuti (72), Canna for Garcia (78), Violi for Palazzani (77), Rizzo for Aguero (52), Ghiraldini for Giazzon (50), Castrogiovanni for Cittadini (52), Bortolami for Bernabo (56), Bergamasco for Minto (68).
Scotland: Tonks, Lamont, Vernon, Scott, Hughes, Weir, Hidalgo-Clyne, Reid, McInally, Cusack, R Gray, Hamilton, Strokosch (c), Hardie, Ashe. Replacements: Horne for Vernon (74), Hoyland for Hughes (67), Pyrgos for Hidalgo-Clyne (64), Dickinson for Reid (44), Ford for McInally (56), Nel for Cusack (49), Watson for Hardie (58). Not used: Bryce.