Scotland hit Six Nations glass ceiling - what defeat in Rome means for Gregor Townsend's seventh campaign in charge

How events unfolded at the Stadio Olimpico as Italy end 11-year wait for home win

Rome felt more like the infernal city for Scotland supporters on Saturday night after they watched their side unravel in alarming fashion at the Stadio Olimpico.

What looked like a promising Six Nations campaign is threatening to come apart at the seams and will require a major patch-up job in Dublin next week if Gregor Townsend's side are to emerge from it with much credit. Talk of the title can now surely be consigned to the bin, despite Ireland's defeat at Twickenham. Scotland would need to defeat Ireland by 77 points and hope the France-England game produces a result that favours them. Pie in the sky, really.

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A resurgent Italy team were well worth their 31-29 victory and it will go down as one of the most disappointing results of Townsend’s near seven-year tenure. As far as the Six Nations is concerned, Scotland seem to have hit a glass ceiling. Three wins is their maximum and even that could be beyond them this year.

Stephen Varney of Italy celebrates scoring his team's third try in the Six Nations win over Scotland. (Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)Stephen Varney of Italy celebrates scoring his team's third try in the Six Nations win over Scotland. (Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)
Stephen Varney of Italy celebrates scoring his team's third try in the Six Nations win over Scotland. (Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)

Townsend’s seventh championship as head coach looks like fizzling out unless they can somehow find a way to overcome the Irish, something they have failed to do in his time in charge. While the progress has been tangible under his leadership, Scotland have still not managed to finish above third place in the Six Nations and been eliminated twice at the group stage of the World Cup. Townsend, who earlier this year signed a new contract until April 2026, says he still believes in this squad.

“You can look at results and say: ‘We’ve lost to Italy, this team aren’t going to take that next step’. Or you can look at where we’ve grown since the World Cup,” said the head coach. “I still believe the performances the players are putting in can show we can beat anybody."

Some context is needed to explain just how momentous this result was. Scotland had beaten Italy 13 times in a row going into the match. The Italians last beat Scotland in 2015 when they defeated Vern Cotter’s side at Murrayfield. They last defeat them in Rome in 2012 when Andy Robinson was at the helm. This was also Italy’s first win in the capital in the Six Nations against any opponent for 11 years, a losing run of 26 games. But the warning signs had been there for Scotland. Anyone who saw how Italy performed in the draw with France in Lille knew they were a serious threat and new coach Gonzalo Quesada deserves great credit for masterminding this win. They will now go to Wales in round five looking to complete their best ever Six Nations campaign.

For Scotland, it’s back to the drawing board and an inquest into how they threw away a 22-10 lead in the first half. They failed to score a point between the 28th and 77th minutes, conceding a slew of penalties, and although they bagged four tries, all they have to show for their efforts are two bonus points.

Italy had taken the lead in the first minute through a Paolo Garbisi penalty but then Scotland pinned them back with three first-half tries from Zander Fagerson, Kyle Steyn and Pierre Schoeman. Nacho Brex kept Italy in touch with a converted try in between Scotland’s second and third but Townsend’s side looked to be in control with a 12-point advantage. But penalties from Garbisi and Martin Page-Relo reduced the lead to 22-16 by half-time.

Scotland then thought they’d scored a fourth try through George Horne but Schoeman was guilty of obstructing and it was chalked off. It proved a key moment. Italy scored a second try almost immediately through debutant Louis Lynagh and the fervent home support could sniff an upset, even though Garbisi hit the post with the conversion.

Substitute scrum-half Stephen Varney put Italy ahead with a smart try which Garbisi converted. The stand-off then added a penalty to make it 31-22. Sam Skinner’s late try gave Scotland a glimmer of hope but it was too little too late.

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The hosts had a dream start when they won a penalty from their kick-off as Christie was pinged for not releasing. Incredibly, as Garbisi lined up the kick, the ball fell off the tee, just as it had done against France a fortnight ago. The stand-off kept his cool this time and was entitled to the broad grin as the ball sailed over.

Scotland didn’t panic and scored their first try after six minutes. They capitalised on a scrappy passage of play, with Blair Kinghorn first to react. He offloaded to Russell who juggled before shipping it on. Schoeman tried his luck on the crash ball and then Zander Fagerson forced his way over from close range after 18 phases.

They got another try five minutes later. Duhan van der Merwe looked to have wriggled clear but he was hauled back; the Scots recycled - Horne at his sharpest - and Kinghorn found Steyn who found the gap to score. Russell converted both and the Scots looked good for 14-3 lead but Italy, roared on by the capacity crowd, came storming back with a nicely worked try. Page-Relo chipped through and Brex was quickest to react, pipping Cam Redpath and Horne to the ball. Garbisi landed the conversion.

Russell knocked over a penalty and then hit Italy with a 50-22 after a smart intercept by the impressive Christie. It paved the way for Scotland’s third try, scored by Schoeman from a lineout maul. Russell’s conversion fell short. It was the first kick at goal he’d missed all championship but Scotland had now moved into a position of strength with a 22-10 lead. Italy had other ideas and landed two penalties before the break to reduce the arrears to six points.

The second half began at the same blistering pace and Horne looked to have marked his first start since 2019 with a try but it was chalked after a TMO review, with Schoeman punished for crossing. Italy took full advantage, Lynagh landing a debut try after a neat grubber from Garbisi. Unfortunately for the stand-off, he then hit the post with a conversion.

Scotland were hanging on - a point to the good but all the momentum was with Italy and Varney nudged them ahead to spark bedlam in the stadium. Ross Vintcent’s brilliant run kick-started the move. Italy kept their nerve and moved the ball to the left and Varney produced a show-and-go off the back of the ruck to score. Garbisi converted impressively from out wide to make it 28-22 to the home side as the game moved into the final quarter.

Van der Merwe, who’d had a quiet game, tried to break free but took the wrong option and was caught when he should have passed to Ali Price. It felt like a hugely significant moment and Scotland were made to pay a few minutes later when Garbisi extended Italy’s lead to 31-22 with a penalty after Sam Skinner was offside.

Skinner gave Scotland a lifeline with a try from close range in the 77th minute and Russell’s conversion brought the visitor to within two points. They tried desperately to keep the game alive, going through over 20 phases as the clock went into the red, but Italy eventually won the turnover and sealed a famous triumph.



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