SOLID, relentless and thoroughly professional. Scotland got the win they wanted to bid farewell to Vern Cotter on a high note, and they also did it in a way that summed up the head coach’s approach.
It was not a spectacular game, and Italy were disappointingly dull, but the home team nonetheless concentrated well to claim a bonus point and give themselves the best possible chance of finishing second in the Six Nations Championship table.
There was the odd flaw. Some chances went a-begging, and captain John Barclay was sin-binned 10 minutes into the second half during a period of serious Italian pressure which. But, after the humiliation of losing so heavily to England last week, this was a performance of commendable commitment and concentration.
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It was also an encouragingly all-round display. The cutting edge in attack was there all right, as it had been in the previous home wins over Ireland and Wales, and if anything the defence was more impressive, as Scotland did not concede a point in the Championship for the first time since they beat Wales 20-0 back in 1993.
The Italians, who have now lost their last dozen Six Nations matches since winning here two years ago, were up against it from the first scrum. Scotland got a good push on, a penalty resulted, and Stuart Hogg scored from distance.
There was a lot of kicking in slippery conditions from both sides, but when it came to the kicks that matter most, penalties, Italy stand-off Carlo Canna had an off day. He missed his first attempt, which would have put his team level at the end of the first quarter, and he went on to miss two more before the break, by which time Scotland were 15-0 ahead.
The first try came just after Huw Jones had been injured making a half-break. Patient play through the middle took Scotland to within a few metres of the Italian posts, they widened play to the left, and Finn Russell finished off the move for a try which he converted himself to put Scotland into double figures.
Matt Scott, who had come on for Jones, got the second three minutes before the break. When Jonny Gray stole a lineout, Ali Price lobbed over the top. Hogg and Giovanbattista Venditti went for it in goal, and the Italian could only spill it forward into the path of the Gloucester centre.
The visitors enjoyed a lot of pressure in the third quarter, and should have scored after a lineout maul only for right-winger Angelo Esposito to be held up by Hogg and Scott. They should have scored again when they once more attacked with a maul before spreading the ball right, but again Hogg saved the day with a timely tackle.
It was that man Esposito who was stripped of the ball, and although it went backwards to Edoardo Padovani, the full-back spilled forward.
The roar from the capacity crowd that greeted that denial of a score was as loud as the ones to celebrate Scotland’s tries, and rightly so. If it is wrong to talk of turning points in games that appear so one-sided, that was at least the moment that snuffed out Italy’s hopes of a reversal in fortunes. They had spent a dozen minutes pressurising Scotland, and they had nothing to show for it.
With Barclay back on, an untidy kick and chase produced Scotland’s third try. Hogg chipped ahead, and the Italian defence was outstripped by both Russell and Visser, with the latter getting ahead of the stand-off to touch down. Russell did convert, however, making it 22-0.
Scotland had almost 20 mins in which to get the bonus point,and eventually, after heavy pressure, it came with seven remaining. Russell made the crucial pass with a swift move, Hogg took it on, then Tommy Seymour finished it off in the right corner.
Russell added the two points and that was that: job done.
With five points in the bag, Scotland could only wait for the afternoon’s other two matches, and hope they produced the sequence that would give them second place in the final table. France’s win over Wales quenched that hope by tea-time, but that result was perhaps no more than a minor frustration at the end of a satisfying afternoon.
It was also the first time in 11 years that Scotland have won three matches out of the five, not to mention a far cry from Cotter’s first season, in which his team suffered a whitewash. The team that Gregor Townsend now inherits has a lot of growing to do it, but there is no denying the fact that it is travelling firmly in the right direction.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Russell, Scott, Visser, Seymour. Cons: Russell 3. Pen: Hogg.
Referee: P Gauzere (France). Attendance: 67,144.