It was impossible not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for Italy coach Conor O’Shea, who looked like a badly beaten dog that has had a bone snatched from its jaws just when it thought its luck had turned. Italy bossed much of this match and led from the 13th to the 72nd minute only to see that elusive win slip through their fingers again.
“I’m destroyed for our supporters,” O’Shea said afterwards. “We played some rugby out there against a team that beat Australia, beat England and almost beat New Zealand. We’re coming.”
All of which begs the question of where exactly Scotland are going and it isn’t an easy one to answer. After a highly successful autumn series when the Scots finished within one score of the best team in the world and, some would say, the best team ever, much the same Scotland squad came even closer yesterday to losing to a team that is ranked 14th in World Rugby’s pecking order, below Tonga, Georgia and Japan.
“Italy can feel that it was one they were in control of for most of the game,” Gregor Townsend conceded before commending his side for their second-half fight back.
“There’s two ways to look at it,” the coach continued.
“We can analyse the game, we disappointed in parts, particularly the first half but [we showed] an improved performance in the second half and a resilience and a togetherness to find that win.
“It is great to pick up an away win, to finish with three wins. Today’s game will be as valuable as the win against England in terms of experience this group has and being able to beat teams when you are not playing your best.”
That much is true but when Townsend gets around to reviewing the Six Nations in the round he will probably conclude that his side played below their best, sometimes by a margin, a little too often for comfort.
Some of that is down to the unforgiving, unrelenting nature of the Six Nations which offers no respite. You are on point or out of the game, as happened to Scotland in Cardiff with a repeat performance on the cards for much of yesterday’s match.
Rugby is a team game but this squad is overly reliant on several important individual players. When one loses their mojo the whole squad suffers; when several key players are out of tune the result is ugly.
Greig Laidlaw was just one example yesterday because the little scrummy looked better at fly-half than he had at nine. This is partly because the tide was already turning Scotland’s way when he switched position but partly because the replacement nine Ali Price brought some much needed speed with his service. Laidlaw might have struggled outside Laidlaw, if you see what I mean.
It is a relatively young squad still, several years behind Ireland in terms of development as Townsend conceded last weekend, but Townsend needs his key players to bring their A-game far more regularly than they are currently doing. You simply can’t imagine a player of Johnny Sexton’s stature making the sort of mistakes that regularly mar Finn Russell’s performances.
In this championship the only match that Townsend can reflect upon with almost complete serenity is the Calcutta Cup, thanks to the clinical finishing of the first 40 minutes and the second half’s dogged defence.
“I think I said to someone before [the championship], whether it was my wife or my parents, this is going to be a roller coaster and it has been during the championships,” said Townsend when asked to reflect on the Six Nations.
“Today was a roller coaster for 80 minutes.
“We started [the series] poorly, we realise that, in our first game. We got things back against France and England, even in the Ireland game we did a lot of good things, I thought game by game we were getting better.
“Today we missed a large part of the first half but we managed to get our game back on track. It is encouraging that parts of the game like the maul and our breakdown work are in place and are real weapons for us, parts of our tackling have gone well and our defence have gone well. But we have a long way to go to reach our potential.”
Scotland set out their stall against England, the fans now know what this team can do and expect the same standards every match. Given Scotland’s recent record, it’s not the worst problem in the world.