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Momentum builds as Scots keep winning

In their pursuit of a heightened sense of awareness, there were pluses and minuses for Scotland on Saturday as they completed their on-field World Cup warm-up programme with a second EMC Test win at Murrayfield.

Already the progress achieved under Andy Robinson can be measured in the capacity to register consecutive victories. Should they beat Pool B minnows Romania in their World Cup opener, as they must, they will become the first Scotland team to win four matches in a row since Ian McGeechan’s side followed beating the USA in San Francisco in 2002 with autumn Test victories against South Africa, Fiji and Romania.

That was the only time in McGeechan’s second stint that they won more than two in succession, while Matt Williams’ teams three wins were all isolated successes, and Frank Hadden’s won two in succession just once, against Portugal and Romania at the last World Cup.

In seeking to establish a winning mentality, Robinson’s four-match unbeaten run -- which started with last year’s draw against England, then ran on into away wins against Ireland, then Argentina twice -- set down something of a marker. This latest run, with two wins over Italy sandwiching another defeat of Ireland, may not yet have bookies recalculating odds, but a new hardness is developing.

Robinson will be particularly pleased by the lead offered by Max Evans, to whom he has given a roving role in the back line, for the way he contributed in attack and defence at the key moments that produced Scotland’s tries.

For the first of those, an opportunity seemed to have been spurned when control of the ball was lost as Richie Vernon sought to off-load in contact. Mike Blair did well to scoop it off the ground, but it was Evans who made something out of very little as he accelerated into contact, realised he had not been held, then regained his feet before presenting Ally Dickinson with his first Test try.

With Scotland coming under scoreboard pressure for the only time in the game, it was a less obvious piece of work by Evans that then helped create the opportunity for Blair’s charge-down try in the second half which sealed the result.

The way the winger flew up to force Luciano Orquera infield and into contact as he sought to run out of his 22 -- in turn leaving the stand-off floored, and Andrea Masi attempting to clear from his line -- let Blair’s speed across the ground capitalise on the full-back’s relatively ponderous delivery of boot to ball.

Blair, too, deserves considerable kudos for his role in both scores, but Robinson will be less happy with the lack of game awareness shown elsewhere. That particularly relates to the on-going failure of those making breaks to connect with their support runners, and fault for that lies with all concerned.

For all that Al Kellock has led his country well this past year or so, his explanation for the failure to turn a 10-0 lead into a 13-point advantage, when a kickable penalty was instead sent to touch for a lineout from which was nothing was gained, was disappointing.

“I talked to Al about it and he said he thought the referee had sin-binned the second row, which is why he went for the corner. But the game changed slightly in that period of time and just after half-time we made some elementary errors that allowed Italy back into the game,” said Robinson.

At a moment when the screw should have been tightened that lack of attention to detail was the sort of mistake that could have cost Scotland since it was, as the coach suggested, something of a momentum changer at that stage. Italy scored a brilliant breakaway try soon afterwards.

That score also saw a lack of awareness of angles on the part of Rory Lamont, the last man in defence, who was beaten all too easily by Tommaso Benvenuti after fine running and well-timed passing by Sergio Parisse, Fabio Semenzato and Masi, let Paul Derbyshire release the winger with a classy off-load.

Neither will Scottish defenders, having done so well in their major objective of improving their line speed to put their opponents under pressure, be happy with their efforts ahead of the second Italian try.

Blair, the otherwise typically authoritative Dan Parks, Rory Lamont and Simon Danielli were all hesitant in seeking to deal with Benvenuti’s chip into the 22.

Even worse was the way Danielli and Vernon, who had run impressively early on, fell off Semenzato as he scrabbled his way over.

Work is needed in the set piece too. The scrums were under as much pressure as was expected, given that Scotland put what would be seen as their weakest front-row scrummagers against Martin Castrogiovanni and co, while the number of lineouts lost was more of a surprise. As ever, the inability to turn clean breaks into tries was disappointing too.

The Scots could also be grateful that Parisse, a phenomenal athlete, was at less than his best having been ill overnight, and that Mirco Bergamasco is such an unreliable goal-kicker.

Yet no team is going to perform perfectly on its first outing and what mattered was how Scotland responded to their mistakes, in particular when the reduction of the gap to 13-12 elicited that instant and decisive response.

“One of the things these matches are about is finding those answers when we’re put under pressure,” said Robinson.

“We were put under pressure against Ireland and came through well. We were put under pressure this week and we were able to keep our composure.”

Having fielded two almost completely different XVs against decent opposition in successive Tests and won both, something no previous Scotland coach could have hoped to do, he is seeing more and more of what he wants from his men, namely an understanding of how to win.

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