This was highway robbery. Rarely has any side in the Six Nations ever been under the pump for so long yet emerged with a win, let alone one with a bonus point that must have added insult to injury for the Azzurri‘s crestfallen supporters.
For at least three quarters of this match, Rome, so often the city of eternal damnation for the men in dark blue, threatened once again to deal a kick to Scottish aspirations in the unmentionables. Yet with barely a minute left on the clock, Greig Laidlaw kicked the penalty which gave Scotland a win that was as undeserved as it was harsh on poor Italy.
“I am destroyed and my players are destroyed because this is a match we should have won from 24-12 up,” said Italy coach Conor O‘Shea afterwards. “But mark my words, we‘re coming.”
Even Gregor Townsend was forced to concede afterwards that “for the first 60 or 70 minutes Italy were the favourites to win”.
As they sought to avoid equalling France‘s record of 17 successive losses in the Championship, Italy showed the sort of verve, desire and drive that has characterised Scotland at Murrayfield under Townsend.
With former Scotland age grade stand-off Tommaso Allan putting in a performance of sublime assurance as he grabbed two tries, made the third and scored 22 points in his man of the match performance, they grabbed the initiative from the kick-off and dominated the first half in particular.
Greig Laidlaw‘s 79th-minute penalty edged Scotland past Italy. Photo/ PA facebook twitter email linkedin google-plus whatsapp pinterest reddit
For most of this encounter Italy dominated possession and mixed it up beautifully between backs and forwards, with flankers Sebastian Negri and Jake Polledri carrying with real venom and power. By the time the match reached the hour mark, they had scored three well-crafted tries and led by 12 points.
But it says much about Scotland that it was not enough. Before the transformation begun by Vern Cotter this is a match that they would almost certainly have lost. But as with France, when they came from behind, instead of wilting they found a way to win ugly. This time Scotland made up for their deficiencies elsewhere by turning to the maul, with three of their four tries coming directly from lineout drives, including two in the last quarter after Laidlaw had moved to stand-off and Townsend had replaced five of the Scotland pack as the Italian forwards finally ran out of puff.
It also helped that they got the rub of the green with French referee Pascal Gauzere, who awarded just five penalties against Scotland compared to nine against Italy, who were also on the wrong end of two free kicks. O‘Shea later railed against Gauzere‘s performance, and in particular his decision to chalk off a try two minutes after half-time when outstanding fullback Matteo Minozzi dropped a ball from a poor Sergio Parisse pass with the tryline beckoning. O‘Shea may have had a point when he claimed the ball did not go forward, but Italy would score within two minutes, so it was not a match-changing decision.
Besides, this was a match that Italy had in their gift until Scotland muscled up and wrested back the initiative in the final quarter. The home side were on top from the kick-off and converted that dominance into points as early as the fifth minute, when Allan kicked them ahead after Scotland strayed offside.
Although hooker Fraser Brown, who was to go off with another worrying head knock, scored a try in the corner after the quietly impressive Nick Grigg barrelled downfield and Hamish Watson displayed vision to throw a looping miss-pass from the base of the ruck, it was merely a pause in Italy‘s progress. Within minutes the home side were back in front after a lineout drive and a couple of forward surges saw Grigg stuck at the bottom of a ruck as Allan received the ball out wide, the stand-off taking advantage to waltz between Huw Jones and WP Nel.
Sebastian Negri‘s try was disallowed. Photo / AP facebook twitter email linkedin google-plus whatsapp pinterest reddit
Moments later Allan created Italy‘s second try, putting through a well-judged grubber, with Minozzi just beating Watson to the touchdown, the 21-year-old fullback registering his fourth try of this Six Nations.
It was at this point that the seeds of Scotland‘s unlikely comeback were sown. Awarded a penalty deep in their own half, Stuart Hogg spiralled it to eight metres from the Italy line. The resulting lineout drive crabbed its way infield, and although its progress was glacial, it was always forward. When John Barclay crashed over a lightbulb clearly went on.
But Scotland rarely had the ball and invariably gave it straight back to Italy when they did, so a reprise of the tactic had to wait. Instead it was Italy who piled on the pressure. They were unlucky not to score two minutes after half-time when Italy turned Scotland over in midfield and Negri powered over, only to be called back for an earlier knock-on. Not that it stalled their progress: seconds later they turned over Scotland again and this time Polledri broke through Ryan Wilson‘s attempted tackle before putting Allan over to make it 24-12.
Despite Townsend swapping the entire front row at half-time and sending on David Denton and Richie Gray soon after in an attempt to change the game‘s momentum, it stayed that way until the final quarter. Laidlaw had just moved to stand-off after Russell was sidelined with a head knock, and when Scotland finally got a chance for another lineout drive the little Borderer threw a sublime long pass for Sean Maitland to scuttle over.
With Italy tiring, Hogg – who maintained his record of scoring in every Six Nations while topping the Championship‘s yardage chart – finished off another lineout drive with seven minutes remaining to give Scotland a two-point lead.
Even then Italy would not be denied and launched a frenzied assault that saw Jonny Gray pinged for not releasing at the bottom of a ruck. When Allan stepped up to slot a long-range kick between the posts to give Italy a one-point lead with five minutes remaining, they must have thought they had settled this tousy affair. Sadly for them, Laidlaw had other ideas.
Fraser Brown scores a try as Italy‘s Mattia Bellini looks on. Photo / AP facebook twitter email linkedin google-plus whatsapp pinterest reddit
Pen Allan 3-0; try Brown 3-5; try Allan 8-5; con Allan 10-5; try Minozzi 15-5; con Allan 17-5; try Barclay 17-10; con Laidlaw 17-12; try Allan 22-12; con Allan 24-12; try Maitland 24-17; con Laidlaw 24-19; try Hogg 24-24; con Laidlaw 24-26; pen Allan 27-26; pen Laidlaw 27-29.
Italy: M Minozzi; T Benvenuti (J Hayward, 59), G Bisegni, T Castello (C Canna, 73), M Bellini; T Allan, M Violi (G Palazzani, 66); A Lovotti (N Quaglio, 58), L Ghiraldini (O Fabiani, 76)), S Ferrari (T Pasquali, 60), A Zanni (A Steyn, 52), D Budd, S Negri, J Polledri (G Licata, 66), S Parisse (captain).
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones (P Horne, 52), N Grigg, S Maitland; F Russell (A Price, 54), G Laidlaw; G Reid (J Bhatti, 40), F Brown (S McInally, 40), W Nel (Z Fagerson, 40), T Swinson (R Gray, 52), J Gray, J Barclay (captain), H Watson, R Wilson (D Denton, 66).
Referee: P Gauzere (France)
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