Scotland 30 Italy 29
Just one day short of the first anniversary of kicking Scotland to victory over Samoa on last year’s summer tour, captain Greig Laidlaw was at it again in Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium this afternoon.
This diminutive son of Jedburgh saw his charges home, with his last kick-of-the-game conversion of Alasdair Strokosch’s injury time try to ensure Scotland finished in third place in the quadrangular tournament.
Laidlaw’s kick was just to the right of the posts. Just as he did in Newcastle, New South Wales and Apia, Samoa, last year he sent the ball between the uprights to win the game for his country. “Any more like that and I’ll be getting grey hair,” he chortled as he waited to collect the deserved man of the match trinket.
Both Laidlaw and head coach Scott Johnson were quick to point out the flaws in Scotland’s performance today. The scrum creaked, restarts miss-fired, discipline was poor (15-9 in Italy’s favour on the Welsh referee’s penalty count) and Scotland were forced to play the game at the setpiece dominated snail’s pace that was to Italy’s liking.
The venom that had characterised Scotland’s work in the contact zone against South Africa last week was not replicated today and Johnson’s demand for consistency in that area from his players reverberated once more around both changing room and media conference.
Yet for all he was irked by elements of the Scotland performance he was right to flag up the resolve; the ability to find a way of winning the game, which for a young team, callow in terms of caps, might just prove a breakthrough.
The similarities with last year’s tour finale were uncanny. Then the go-to man (and player of the tour) was Strokosch and most improved player of the tour was Matt Scott. Fittingly, both were on the score-sheet today. Scott scored his second international try in as many weeks, raising his overall tally to three. It was, too, a very tasty follow-up to the try he finished off from lineout ball against the Azzurri at Murrayfield back in February.
Strokosch, who could scarcely summon the energy to climb up from a sofa outside the Scotland changing room post-match – talk about leaving everything on the pitch – had just scored his second try for Scotland; and his first touchdown since the 2008 win against Canada at Pittodrie.
With the 2011 Rugby World Cup pre-season training included, he reckoned he had completed some 23 months of rugby (give or take the occasional injury which, given the physicality he brings to proceedings is an inevitable attrition rate). But if there’s one man who now deserves some quality time with his family in the south of France, it’s Strokosch.
Before finishing the plaudits, praise for another of the experienced brigade – Sean Lamont. “There’s life in the old dog yet,” he nodded. Sean’s desire to play for Scotland is so palpable and the manner in which he has risen to the competition from the newcomers has been inspirational. Today he crossed for his 11th try for his country and second of the tournament.
Back to the run of play, then, and Scotland’s inability to pouch the kick-off saw Italy rumble through their pack and release debutant Leonardo Sarto for the game’s opening try, Alberto Di Bernardo converting with hardly two minutes on the clock.
At least Scotland’s riposte was suitably quick-witted. Johnson has labelled David Denton and Matt Scott the “umbilical brothers” as the Edinburgh Rugby duo are good friends. From a lineout take by Tim Swinson, Scotland attacked, Denton broke a tackle and Scott was in support to romp home for a cracking try. Laidlaw converted and parity was restored at 7-all.
At the first scrum in the 11th minute, Euan Murray was penalised by Leighton Hodges for dropping and Di Bernardo goaled (7-10) but Scotland again regrouped and from pressure by Denton off Scott’s chip ahead the Italians coughed up ball for Laidlaw to feed Lamont for the Scots’ second try. Laidlaw converted and his 20th minute penalty for Italian offside after a charge from Alex Dunbar saw Scotland’s advantage to 17-10.
Around the half hour mark Italy had the bit between their teeth at a scrum five, eschewing kicks at goal to re-scrum on the two occasions Scotland were penalised. Come the third, referee Hodges strolled under the posts to award Italy a penalty try and Di Bernardo’s conversion had matters tied up at 17-all.
Laidlaw and Di Bernardo exchanged penalties both before and after half-time – Laidlaw’s opening points of the second-half stemming from the belligerence of Lamont’s pursuit of the kick-off – and Scotland were soon going to their bench with Tim Visser and Henry Pyrgos introduced.
Dunbar was not quite able to grasp a Laidlaw chip-kick as the captain now orchestrated from the stand-off berth but it seemed Scotland might have some breathing space as from Visser’s break off scrum-ball, Scott hared away to touch down between the posts.
The “score” was referred to the TMO and although Visser’s pass movement was backwards the officials ruled against Scotland – Scott later noting that it was probably the correct call.
The match was bogged down in a forward arm wrestle – how often has that been the case against Italy – and penalties from Di Bernardo in the 57th and 67th minutes (he pushed one to the left in the 62nd) saw Italy now 29-23 to the good.
What could Scotland muster at this stage? The pack advanced to be held up short of the line on the right and just as Laidlaw was poised to strike in cobra fashion he lost the ball forward in the act of scoring.
Fraser Brown became the tenth new cap of the tour and Jon Welsh also joined the fray as Scotland used their entire bench before the nerve-tingling climax saw Strokosch sail through a gap off a short penalty for Laidlaw to complete the coup de grace with the conversion and a haul of 15 points.
Thus Scotland rung down their international campaign for season 2012-13 and brought a 50% success rate to their international matches at the home of the Blue Bulls, today’s win sitting alongside the 1995 RWC victory over Tonga on the positive side of the column.
Scotland: Peter Murchie; Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar (all Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby), Sean Lamont (Glasgow Warriors); Tom Heathcote (Bath Rugby), Greig Laidlaw CAPTAIN; Alasdair Dickinson (both Edinburgh Rugby), Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors), Tim Swinson, Alastair Kellock (both Glasgow Warriors), David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier).
Subs: Tim Visser (Edinburgh Rugby) for Seymour (43 mins), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) for Heathcote (48 mins), Moray Low (Glasgow Warriors) for Dickinson (50 mins), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby) for Swinson and Duncan Taylor (Saracens) for Murchie (both 58 mins), Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors) for Beattie (60 mins), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) for Lawson and Jon Welsh (Glasgow Warriors) for Low (both 72 mins).
Italy: Andrea Masi; Leonardo Sarto, Luca Morisi, Alberto Sgarbi, Giovanbattista Venditti; Alberto Di Bernardo, Tobias Botes; Matias Aguero, Davide Giazzon, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leandro Cedaro, Marco Bortolami, Josh Furno, Robert Barbieri and Sergio Parisse (captain).
Subs: Leonardo Ghiraldini for Giazzon and Alberto De Marchi for Aguero (both 47 mins), Lorenzo Cittadini for Castrogiovanni and Alessandro Zanni for Bortolami (both 48 mins), Antonio Pavanello for Cedaro (52 mins), Gonzalo Canale for Morisi (53 mins), Luke McLean for Sarto (61 mins), Alberto Chillon for Botes (69 mins).
Man of the match: Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)
Scotland: Tries: Matt Scott, Sean Lamont and Alasdair Strokosch. Conversions: Laidlaw (3). Penalties: Laidlaw (3)
Italy: Tries: Sarto, Penalty. Conversions: Di Bernardo (2). Penalties: Di Bernardo (5)