Italy claimed a rare Six Nations victory on the road on Saturday, coming from behind to beat Scotland 22-19 at Murrayfield.
The Azzurri outscored their hosts two tries to one in the first half but Scotland nevertheless held a 16-15 lead at the interval. There was late drama however as a penalty try in the last minute handed the visitors the spoils.
The Azzurri typically present bristling with blood-curdling pride and frenetic vigour, but lacking the clarity of mind to execute skills with great accuracy when entering what teams nowadays refer to as the ‘finish zone’.
There are signs this tendency is beginning to change, but their slow arc of improvement, fraught as it has been and will continue to be with setbacks and hammerings, is less advanced and progressing with less velocity than that of the Scots under Vern Cotter.
After the familiar anguish of narrow defeats to France and Wales, Scotland, desperate to shed the label of gallant losers, simply had to emerge from Round Three with not just a win, but a win with substance.
This then was a match that ought to have belied the gulf in panache and in ruthlessness between the sides, but a turgid, disjointed Scotland, often their own worst enemy, toiled to break down Jacques Brunel’s Italy.
It was a dreadfully inept and utterly toothless display from the hosts – their worst under Cotter.
Pete Horne, a talented fly-half replacing the banned Finn Russell, looked sharp with ball in hand, with Greig Laidlaw kicking twelve points to supplement Mark Bennett’s early interception score, but his missed touch just as his pack had won a crucial penalty blighted his earlier promise.
A bruising score from Josh Furno, a freak Giovanbattista Venditti try and the irresistible power of the Italian forwards left them staring at the Wooden Spoon.
It started well for the hosts, however. With barely a minute gone, Laidlaw opened the scoring with a penalty in front of the posts as Glasgow Warriors’ new signing Simone Favaro cleared his soon-to-be teammate Alex Dunbar off a ruck from the side.
Brunel opted with the power of Kelly Haimona at fly-half over the guile of Tommy Allan, and the pivot endured a tough opening ten minutes, blowing a two-man overlap on halfway with a dreadful pass picked off by Bennett, who raced in untouched for his first Test try.
Laidlaw converted with ease, but the Italians soon reminded their hosts just how mean their pack can be with a monstrous fifteen-metre maul that ended with Josh Furno plunging over in the corner, Haimona missing the conversion.
It was an omen, a sign of things to come as the visitors used the driving maul to great, ultimately match-winning effect.
Laidlaw extended Scotland’s lead with another routine penalty, but it was cancelled out almost immediately by Haimona as Blair Cowan played the ball from an offside position from the restart.
Laidlaw struck again on twenty-seven minutes to restore Scotland’s advantage, but despite enjoying a sizeable chunk of possession and territory, struggled to find the precision to break the blue line.
And when a Haimona penalty ricocheted back off the upright, bouncing a yard from the line and sparking panic in the home ranks, it was Venditti who pounced first to ground against the base of the post – his pivot couldn’t miss with the conversion.
Haimona retreated injured five minutes into the second-half, Allan, capped at U20 level for the hosts his replacement, and trailing by a point, Italy continued to frustrate the Scots.
The substitute fluffed a simple penalty effort to the delight of most of Murrayfield, many of whom could surely sense the ignominy of another defeat to their fellow strugglers looming.
Sean Lamont almost sent Stuart Hogg in on the hour mark as Scotland finally mustered some momentum and dynamic phase play, but his pass inside was correctly called forward by George Clancy.
Laidlaw landed his fourth penalty, but persistent indiscipline from the Scots saw Italy, four points down, pile on the pressure with a series of mauls and scrums deep in home territory as the game entered its final ten minutes.
The visiting pack turned the screw – the set-piece went up, then down, then round on its axis, but somehow, Scotland’s eight held firm, winning a penalty that heralded the biggest roar of the afternoon.
But the hosts’ weren’t yet done shooting themselves in the foot. Horne missed touch from the penalty, Scotland infringed again, and they were back on their line, defending for their lives again.
Ben Toolis was sent to the sin-bin for pulling down a maul, and as the Italians kicked to the corner again, rest, drove and drove inexorably towards the whitewash, crumbling to the turf inches short, Clancy strode under the posts, consigning Scotland to a third straight loss, and bottom place in the tournament standings.
Hamish Watson too was shown yellow and the boos rang out as Allan converted. The rain began to fall, and with it washed away the optimism and expectancy that abounded in these parts just a few short weeks ago.
Man of the match: On a day when precious few stood out, Furno gets my nod for an impressive display of carrying and ballast in the tight.
Moment of the match: Horne missing touch allowed Italy possession, from whence they won the penalty that enabled them to work their way downfield anew. Unforgiveable.
Villain of the match: Nothing terribly nasty to report, besides the odd spat.
Pens: Laidlaw 3
Yellow cards: Toolis, Watson
Tries: Furno, Venditti, Penalty trty
Cons: Haimona, Allan
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Peter Horne, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Greig Tonks, 23 Matt Scott.
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Michele Visentin, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Enrico Bacchin, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Samuela Vunisa, 21 Guglielmo Palazzini, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Giulio Bisegni.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)
Assessor: Lyndon Bray (New Zealand)
By Jamie Lyall