Iain Morrison: Win over Italy will only matter if Scotland can take the momentum into final two games

It’s the magic ingredient that every team wants but it’s tantalisingly elusive and, like mercury, it is harder to catch if you make a conscious effort to grab it. Momentum wins matches or, to be strictly accurate, momentum makes the winning of games that much simpler.

Adam Hastings runs in Scotland's third try in Rome. Now Gregor Townsend's side must take the momentum into the France and Wales game. Picture: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Adam Hastings runs in Scotland's third try in Rome. Now Gregor Townsend's side must take the momentum into the France and Wales game. Picture: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

There were various momentum changers yesterday; Adam Hastings’ missed penalty, Ali Price’s non-score, Stuart Hogg’s first try and that late Italian yellow card… all changed the mood music of yesterday’s game one way or another. At times you can wrestle “the big mo” back, other times it is not so easy.

Scotland’s win against a very poor Italy team ranked below Georgia is irrelevant in itself. It will only matter if Gregor Townsend’s squad gets a boost to confidence, a little wind in their sails for the last two matches, some much-needed momentum, and perhaps one more win?

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They badly need it because Scotland can play a lot better than they showed yesterday... at least you hope that Scotland will play a lot better, with some confidence flowing through their veins again.

Neither side arrived at Stadio Olimpico over-burdened with self-belief and it showed. Had Scotland won their first two matches they would have had this one wrapped up in the first 30. As it was, a ten-point lead inside the final ten minutes was no one’s idea of a dominant display.

Scotland looked like a side struggling for confidence, fluffing several open goals and going into their shells for much of this match. This squad has morphed in a matter of months from a team that throws the ball wide at every opportunity, as they did against Ireland in the World Cup, to a side that almost never does, as happened in Rome.

They need some balance. A side needs the confidence to move the ball wide and the smarts to know when and where to do so. This Scotland side is still groping their way, overly conservative in the opposition red zone, with one-out passes that failed to breach the Italian defence and won’t get much joy from France either.

Early in the first half when the Scots were pounding on the Italian line, just before Magnus Bradbury knocked the ball on, Italy’s widest defender was just outside the posts. Had Scotland moved the ball to the right Sean Maitland had a walk in. With Hogg back to his best and Maitland and Blair Kinghorn in good form, the Scots still pose a genuine threat in the wider channels.

Thankfully there were several areas that the Scots dominated. Defence has looked much more secure since Steve Tandy took over. Rory Sutherland had the ultimate compliment of seeing the back of his Italian tighthead after just 30 minutes of play and, of course, the breakdown where Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie picked Italian pockets all afternoon.

The Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe blew this area a little differently than most in the northern hemisphere. He occasionally allowed a turnover even when the defending team had inserted a body into the breakdown that impeded the all-important clear out. It was a subtle difference but it had a marked influence on the game as both sides adjusted, Italy more slowly than the Scots.

In the first half Watson won one steal when Ben Toolis’s big body was lying all over the breakdown. After the break the exact same thing happened five metres from the Italian line when Sebastian Negri turned the Scots over with a little help from his fellow breakaway Abraham Steyn who was innocently preventing the “clean”.

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The blood, sweat and tears from the Azzurri are all present and correct but any hint of subtlety, invention or creativity was notable only by their absence. In the final quarter Italy were reduced to using Tommaso Allan as a battering ram and, even then, he was being tackled 20 yards behind the gain line.

They have now lost 25 Championship matches on the bounce, they lost Mitteo Minozzi to an injury late in the game, and any momentum they have is of the backwards variety.