Scotland had Greig Laidlaw to thank as his last-gasp penalty secured a 29-27 win over Italy in a Six Nations thriller at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Saturday.
It was a great advert for Six Nations rugby, as both sides maintained a high standard of play throughout, with the final result impossible to predict until the very end.
The defeat is a cruel one for the Italians as it would have broken a sixteen-match losing streak in the Six Nations.
Their conditioning, however, must be brought into question as once again they faded from the sixty-minute mark onwards.
They began on the front foot, taking the game to their more-fancied opponents. Tommaso Allan’s sixth-minute penalty was just reward for their sustained pressure.
But Scotland needed just one forage upfield to register the game’s first try. After Nick Grigg made a lovely line break in midfield, Tommy Seymour was halted a couple of metres short. Good vision from Hamish Watson at stand-in scrum-half found Fraser Brown over the top, the hooker having plenty of time to wait and read the bounce before gathering and dotting down.
However, soon after, the Italians hit back with an outstanding piece of play. Firstly, it was the Azzurri forwards who showed their strength, outmuscling the Scottish pack and gaining good metres with the driving maul.
They worked it right to the backline with Allan producing a brilliant dummy and shimmy, feinting to pass to his right and then stepping on Huw Jones’ inside and putting the foot on the gas, absolutely splintering the Scottish defence. The irony that Allan began his rugby career in Scotland was not lost in the heat of the moment.
The Italians certainly weren’t playing like a side that had lost their last sixteen Six Nations matches. After making over ten phases, Italian tighthead prop Simone Ferrari made a half-break, fending off Scotland fly-half Finn Russell. Having made it up to the Scotland ten-metre line and with nothing really on, Allan’s beautifully weighted grubber through was snaffled upon by Matteo Minozzi, who was the quickest to react, grabbing his fourth try in five Six Nations matches.
Five minutes later, the Scots momentarily silenced the Rome faithful, when skipper John Barclay went over at the back of a well-worked Scottish driving maul. Russell added the extras to cut the deficit to five at 17-12 with 15 minutes of the first-half remaining.
The Italians started the second as they started the first and quickly converted their ascendancy in to points. Jake Polledri made a sensational barnstorming carry in midfield and ran fourty metres for being chopped down. The ball was recycled before Polledri rejoined the move to play the final pass for Allan who had an easy run-in to the line, converting his own try for a 24-12 lead.
But the Scots began taking control, winning the collisions, while the Italians started losing their defensive discipline. After a driving maul and a couple of powerful carries got Scotland close, Laidlaw’s long pass over the top found Sean Maitland, the wing straightening and diving over the line. Laidlaw added the conversion which meant the Scots were now within five.
With ten minutes to go, Azzurri captain Sergio Parisse conceded a turnover penalty, with the Scots opting for touch and the rolling maul, which was halted inches short once again. Nine phases later, Italian resistance was finally broken when Hogg split the gap between Sebastian Negri and Jayden Hayward to level matters. Laidlaw’s conversion gave the Scots a 26-24 lead with eight minutes to go.
By this stage the Italians were tiring and unable to commit as many men to the breakdown. However, they soldiered on and from the restart won a penalty for a Scotland tackler not rolling away. Allan slotted a 55 metre pressure penalty much to the delight of the rapturous Rome crowd.
But Scotland were not to be outdone and had the ever-reliable Laidlaw to thank as this spectacular game offered up one more twist. The scrum-half showed ice-cold composure to strike the match-winning penalty between the posts after Italy were penalised for collapsing the maul.
Tries: Allan 2, Minozzi
Cons: Allan 3
Pens: Allan 2
Tries: Brown, Barclay, Maitland, Hogg
Cons: Laidlaw 3
Italy: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Jake Polledri, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Tiziani Pasquali, 19 Abraham Steyn, 20 Giovanni Licata, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Jayden Hayward
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Nick Grigg, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay (c), 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 WP Nel, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Gordon Reid
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Richie Gray, 20 David Denton, 21 Ali Price, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Blair Kinghorn
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Andrew Brace (Ireland)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)