Scotland finished the Six Nations in third place with three wins to their credit, although that didn’t look likely for much of Saturday’s game in Rome. The Scots ended this tournament as they had started it, playing badly, and it took two tries in the final quarter, the first by Sean Maitland, the second by Stuart Hogg, to secure victory.
Even then Greig Laidlaw’s composure and the nerves of goodness knows how many Scottish fans were tested when the Scots conceded the lead to a 76th-minute penalty by man of the match Tomasso Allan.
Just two minutes later another hugely effective drive by the Scottish forwards was halted illegally. Laidlaw stepped up from wide on the right with a kick to nothing to save Scotland’s blushes.
Not only did the Italian fans do their best to put the little scrummy off his stride but, just as the Scot was beginning his run up, the stadium commentator asked for quiet over the loudspeaker system. If it was cynical, the ploy didn’t work.
“It went between the posts and over the bar so I was pretty happy,” said a relieved Laidlaw after the match. “I hit the ball OK all day apart from the first one, which I was annoyed about.
“You have to just try to block everything else out whatever your technique. Thankfully it held up again today although I have said to the boys, ‘don’t be putting me in that position too many more times’.
“It is something you get used to as a kicker, noise is noise. It does not matter what is happening or what kind of noise it is. I play in France where they make noise when you are kicking so it is something that is not new to me.
“It probably helps playing in France. In home matches the Clermont crowd is really loud. It can help kickers, especially young kickers, coming through. You just block everything and that is the advice I would give anybody. I was able to do that and hold my technique. I felt the boys closed the game out well, it was not just me.”
Scotland were poor in the first half while Italy played the most compelling rugby of the championship to date, all hustle and bustle with the debutant flanker Jake Polledri a real find. The Scots couldn’t get hands on the ball, spent much of the first 40 stuck deep inside their own half and were trailing by 17-12 at the break. Italy’s two tries came from Allan and full-back Matteo Minozzi, while Fraser Brown and John Barclay scored for the visitors from a driving maul, just the first of many which effectively won the game for Scotland.
“They drove us back into the game,” said Laidlaw of his forward pack. “ It really sucked the life out of them near the end of the game. You could see the Italian forwards were gasping for air and we were pushing them back through the drive. That is what probably turned the game for us.”
But not before things took a turn for the worse when, immediately after the break, it looked like Azzurri flanker Sebastien Negri had scored only for the referee to wipe it off after spotting a knock on. Then Allan did score a scorcher of a try, made by Jake Polledri, and finished off from 30 yards out by the former Scotland age-grade stand-off.
For the second time in the match the Scots were staring at a 12-point deficit and it could have been worse had Sergio Parisse’s scoring pass found its mark (the Italians later argued Finn Russell had knocked on) but Laidlaw insisted that the Scots kept their cool.
“I don’t think we panicked,” said the scrum-half. “We were always saying if we got a hold of the ball we could score points. We did that, played for 80 minutes and came away with an ugly win.
“It says a lot about the team. We have worked on our character in both defence and attack. We have been building this over a few years now trying to win ugly.
“We might not have come back from that a couple of years back. To be able to do that now is pleasing and to understand when we are behind we still back our skills set and still cause teams problems.
“That is part of the evolution. That has been pushed through the leadership group. Today was really impressive. Everybody took a couple of deep breaths, listening to the leaders. The plan was there and we stuck to it and we pulled ourselves out of a hole.”
As the match wound down the Scots’ superior fitness and their substitutes finally made a dent in the Italian defence. Simply by holding on to the ball the visitors came up with tries from first Maitland and then Hogg, both of whom were fed by Laidlaw, now shifted to stand-off with Russell off the field for an HIA from which he never returned.
The plan seemed to have worked to perfection when Laidlaw’s conversion of Hogg’s 70th-minute score gave the Scots a precarious two-point lead. Allan’s penalty five minutes from time seemed to steal the game for the home side only for Laidlaw to cut short Italian celebrations inside the final two minutes.
The little man had been written off in some quarters but he has proved his worth again. Did he feel like he had made a statement of sorts?
“I hope so,” Laidlaw replied. “I am pretty competitive and I love playing for my country so it is something I don’t take lightly when I get the opportunity. I try to put my best foot forward and help the group when I can.
“We are still evolving. We would like to be further down the track and still look at the Welsh performance and the Irish result but we are quite far down the track, playing some good rugby and winning some big games and we were delighted to win today.”