Italy always believe they can beat Scotland, and after witnessing yesterday’s match it is easy to understand why. The Scots got the win, and their first bonus point of the series, but they made life horribly difficult for themselves, having to bounce back from 17-5 and 24-12 down to win with a Greig Laidlaw penalty less than two minutes from time.
It was the rolling maul that saved Gregor Townsend’s blushes and you’d have got long odds against reading that sentence at the start of the Six Nations. John Barclay scored one try in the first half from a maul, the Scots mauled the Italians back 30 metres before Stuart Hogg’s second-half score and they milked Laidlaw’s winning penalty with, yes, another driven maul. It was a win in Rome, just not in the way that anyone had imagined it.
What the match lacked in quality it made up for in scoreboard excitement, with the lead changing hands three times in the final ten, utterly absorbing minutes. Hogg’s try and Laidlaw’s conversion gave Scotland a 26-24 lead with ten to go only for Jonny Gray to get penalised almost immediately. Tommaso Allan’s penalty, to the delight of a home crowd starved of success, made it advantage Italy 27-26, only for Laidlaw to do what he does best with just 1:20 left on the clock. The large contingent of Scots were mostly grouped behind those posts and their roar told you the kick was good long before the referee did.
Allan, a former Scotland Under-20 international before he switched to his mother’s homeland, was the local hero with two tries, three conversions and two penalties. He will still be wondering what he must do to win a Test.
For Scotland, Nick Grigg showed up well in his first Six Nations start. The little man displayed plenty of heart in defence and he picked a few nice lines in attack. Sean Maitland was excellent throughout but most of those in blue played well within themselves.
The Scots barely touched the ball in the first quarter of this match, and the loss of two early lineout throws and Italy’s unexpected excellence at the breakdown only exacerbated the disparity. Finn Russell kicked straight into touch twice. Tackles were missed, passes were spilled and there was an almost total lack of urgency and accuracy, especially in the first half.
After an early Allan penalty the Scots finally got their hands on the ball. Maitland and Tommy Seymour made good ground up the left flank before Russell was stopped under the posts. Eventually Hamish Watson sent a long pass out for Fraser Brown to score on the right wing.
Italy’s response was to score two tries in seven minutes and retake the lead. The first was a superb solo effort from Allan who, after a couple of forward drives, dummied Huw Jones to touch down under the posts. The same man then created the second. After spotting Hogg in the Scotland line, he dabbed the ball in behind the defence and full-back Matteo Minozzi beat Hamish Watson to the bouncing ball for the score.
The Scottish forwards then put down a marker when presented with an attacking lineout, ten metres from the Italian line. They marched the resulting maul over for a try; Barclay the last man up.
The flurry of first-half points left Italy 17-12 ahead after half an hour and the Scots ended the half as they had started it, in desperate defence to keep the Italians at bay.
Townsend reacted to the disappointing first 40 by changing his entire front row but it was the Italians who again showed more desire for the fight. Flanker Sebastian Negri thought he had scored two minutes into the second half only for the officials to wipe it off for an early knock on.
Italy were not to be denied for long. Zander Fagerson coughed up the ball in contact, Ryan Wilson missed a tackle on Jake Polledri and the Italian flanker sent Allan haring towards the Scottish line for the stand-off’s second try of the afternoon.
Staring at a 24-12 deficit, Townsend went to the bench just before the hour mark with Peter Horne and Richie Gray thrown into the action. A little later Russell departed for an HIA never to return, Laidlaw went to ten and Ali Price made an immediate impact at scrum-half, bringing some much needed zip to the Scots’ attack.
The changes worked. Following some intense pressure the Scots scored wide on the right when Laidlaw’s miss pass found Maitland on the “wrong” wing.
The Scots had 18 minutes to overhaul a five-point deficit; they only needed ten, Hogg scampering in after the Scottish forwards had driven a maul a good 30 metres. Allan, along with every other Italian in the place, thought he had spoilt the Scottish party, but Laidlaw kept his nerve to dig his team out of a hole.