SCOTLAND'S second-string passed up a great chance to launch the Six Nations weekend with a double victory last night by literally handing Italy a draw at McDiarmid Park.
The Scots stood up well to the big, physical Italian side, and displayed the greater ambition and skill in attack, but their failure to turn good periods of possession into points allowed Kris Burton, Italy's Australian-born stand-off, to secure the first draw in this fixture.
Scotland A coaches, Sean Lineen and Andy Robinson both lamented the shadow side's inability to finish off promising moves. The most costly error came with 12 minutes remaining when David Blair – who had just replaced Gordon Ross at stand-off – popped a pass up in the air with his first touch, only to find no teammates in sight but Burton, who gleefully raced on to it and ran 40 metres to the posts.
Scotland had been building a lead at that point, but they were then forced to spend the last ten minutes trying to recover the match, which they did. It was a bit similar to the way the game had begun. A crossfield kick from Burton in the eighth minute was initially caught by Sean Lamont, but then stripped from the Test winger by Michele Sepe, the Italian right wing, who then touched down.
Referee JP Doyle ruled it out as Sepe was in front of the kicker, but the Italians had already earned a penalty which Burton duly converted to put the Italians 3-0 ahead.
Scotland should have responded within three minutes, but after a sublime break by Steve Jones, the full-back, the big Glasgow lock Dan Turner held onto the ball too long and was thumped to the ground 15 metres out when he should have delivered the final pass to send clubmate Ed Kalman into the right-hand corner.
Burton was beginning to write his name across the game, however, and after a neat chip-and-chase he doubled Italy's lead with a well-struck drop-goal in the 13th minute. Scotland stepped up to the pace, Mark McMillan, the Glasgow scrum-half, willing his forwards on and alternating spin and popped passes as the hosts attacked inside the Italian 22.
They finally got their reward with 17 minutes played when Johnnie Beattie, the No 8 earning rave reviews from his coaches, showed the skill and power to use a right-wheeling scrum and break from the back and through the visiting defence.
Scott MacLeod and Dan Turner worked well to disrupt the Italian lineout, while the scrummage worked hard to try to maintain a stable base against a strong Italian unit. Behind the scrum, McMillan and Ross provided good leads and Ben Cairns and Steve Jones both had good games.
But Burton was a real threat. After falling short with a drop-goal, he struck a penalty on the half-hour to edge Italy A back in front. Ross replied in kind after a blatant bit of obstruction by Jean-Francois Montauriol, the blindside flanker, that flattened Beattie as he chased a high kick.
With Burton kicking superbly from hand, it was no surprise when the Italian fly-half converted another chance, right on half-time and near halfway, to send the visitors into the break 12-10 ahead.
The Scots grasped the initiative on the restart and Webster was possibly dreaming of his first try since Boxing Day when he took a pass from Ben Cairns on his hip, after a neat break by the centre, only to lose it down his leg five metres from the posts.
Cairns then simply did it himself with a scintillating try nine minutes into the second half. Ross had kicked a penalty from 40 metres to touch, Scott MacLeod claimed the lineout, McMillan fired a great pass to Ross and he fed Cairns on a great arc from the 22 which took him cantering through the stunned Azzurri defence and in under the crossbar.
Burton revived the Italians' hope with a penalty after another drop-goal and then came Blair's disastrous pass, which turned a two-point lead into a five-point deficit.
The McDiarmid Park crowd found its voice and tried to roar the Scots over the Italian line in the final minutes. From a Webster half-break, Scotland recycled and moved it wide, and survived a near-interception for Beattie to dive into the right-hand corner for his second try of the night. Blair had the chance to atone for his error but fell short with the tough conversion from the right touchline.
Scorers: Scotland A: Tries - Beattie 2, Cairns; Pen - Ross; Cons - Ross 2. Italy A: Tries - Burton; Pens - Burton 4; Drop-goal - Burton; Con - Burton.
Scotland A: S Jones; S Webster, B Cairns, R Jackson, S Lamont; G Ross, M McMillan; E Kalman, S Lawson, M Low, S MacLeod, D Turner, A Hogg (capt), J Beattie, A MacDonald. Subs: K Traynor for Kalman 47mins, F Thomson for Lawson, C Hamilton for Turner, both 65, D Blair for Ross, G Laidlaw for McMillan 33.
Italy: A Sgarbi; M Sepe, R Quartaroli, A Galante, R Pavan; K Burton, T Tebaldi; A de Marchi, F Sbaraglini, F Staibano, T Reato, A Pavanello, J-F Montauriol, P Derbyshire, S Favaro. Subs: M Rizzo for A de Marchi 45mins, T Reato for Montauriol 52, De Marchi for Giazzon 64, M Neethling for Galante 70.
Referee: JP Doyle (Ireland). Attendance: 1,376.