AT THE end of a Six Nations campaign which had seen Scotland beat Wales for the first time in a decade and win on the opening day for the first time since 2006, it was fitting that they should round things off with another indication of the progress they have made under Vern Cotter: a first win on the final day since 2011.
In the intervening years since then, they had lost to Italy, France, Wales (51-3 under Scott Johnson in 2014) and Ireland twice. The range of opposition suggests that Scotland might not have had quite the right approach to the end of a tournament. If so, they certainly did on Saturday, when they turned in a calm and controlled performance to ensure that the head coach would sign off on a winning note, and with a winning record from his time in charge with 19 victories and 17 defeats.
Italy were poor, missing their kicks at goal and failing to finish off moves which should have yielded tries. Having said that, Scotland defended magnificently when they needed to, with Stuart Hogg being instrumental in thwarting the visitors on both occasions when they came closest to scoring.
It was Hogg who got the ball rolling with an early penalty after the Italians had offended at the first scrum, an incident which epitomised the visitors’ problems. Whatever the limitations of their back division, they have usually been able to mount a formidable challenge up front, and yet here, barring a few promising mauls, they were unable to trouble Scotland unduly. Without Sergio Parisse, who will be 34 by the time the next Championship kicks off and cannot be around for too much longer, they will be desperately short of talent in the pack.
An injury to Huw Jones was one of the few negative aspects of the afternoon from a Scots point of view, but the first try soon followed after the centre had slipped making a half-break. Ryan Wilson, Zander Fagerson and Alex Dunbar had all forced their way ever closer to the Italian line, and when scrum-half Ali Price spread the ball left, Finn Russell slipped through the defence from a few metres out. The stand-off converted to take Scotland into double figures, and already the match seemed to be in the bag.
Russell nearly got the second a few minutes before half-time, but was held up just short. With the referee playing advantage, Price lofted a lob towards the right corner flag, and after both Hogg and Giovanbattista Venditti had failed to gather in the air, substitute Matt Scott pounced to make it 15-0 at the break.
The third quarter was the Italians’ best of the match, and sustained pressure led to captain John Barclay being yellow-carded after persistent offences. Winger Angelo Esposito should have opened the visitors’ account after they had created a big overlap on the right, but he was denied by the combined efforts of Hogg and Scott. A few minutes later the same player was halted by Hogg, and although this time the ball went back to Edoardo Padovani, the full-back spilled it forwards.
That moment was as big a morale boost for Scotland as either of their tries, and with Barclay back on the field they scored their third. Both Russell and Tim Visser proved themselves faster than the turning defence as they chased Hogg’s chip ahead, and it was the winger who won the race to touch down.
Scotland had known they would have to be patient in their pursuit of the bonus point, and, with nearly 20 minutes in which to get it, they maintained their composure. Eventually, after a long, multi-phase move, they opened up the Italians again. A speedy pass from Russell set Hogg free in space, and he drew the defence before passing to Tommy Seymour for a straightforward score.
We learned by the end of the day that the bonus-point win was not enough for Scotland to claim second or even third place in the final table, but they had at least done all they could. The match itself may have been unmemorable, but the professionalism they showed in claiming their third home win of the campaign was exemplary.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: Russell, Scott, Visser, Seymour. Cons: Russell 3. Pen: Hogg.
Referee: P Gauzere (France). Attendance: 67,144.
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