IT WAS a desperately close-run fight, it was a barely deserved victory, and the match itself was not exactly a thing of beauty. It matters not.

After six consecutive losses, Scotland have won a match. Vern Cotter and his players may have talked about the process and the performance being more important than the result, but make no mistake, this was a morale-boosting score, even if the remaining problems were there for everyone to see, above all up front, where the Scots pack were second best by a long way.

Yet, no matter those deficiencies, Scotland showed immense character to fight back and claim the win in the closing minutes. When they fell 12-9 behind with time running out, things looked black, but then Peter Horne and Matt Scott combined down the left to put in Henry Pyrgos for the only try of the game. Duncan Weir, who had kept his team in the hunt with three penalties, converted, and that elusive victory was within the team’s grasp.

Superior fitness had a part to play against opponents playing their first warm-up match, and Italy are sure to fight all the harder next week at Murrayfield. But Cotter can choose to strengthen his side significantly for that game, and in any case, every player will have an extra spring in his step next week thanks to this result.

Cotter’s team had been forced into a late change when Grant Gilchrist pulled out with illness. Alasdair Strokosch assumed the captaincy, Jim Hamilton came into the starting line-up and Kevin Bryce, a hooker, was drafted on to the bench. The reshuffle did not stop the team from settling into their stride, however, and Weir gave Scotland an early lead with a penalty awarded for an offence in the scrum.

Italy responded with a drive which, thanks to a couple of missed tackles, came within metres of the try line before Sam Hidalgo-Clyne relieved the pressure with a kick to halfway. As the home team continued to attack with ball in hand, John Hardie was prominent in defence, and forced one particularly valuable turnover.

Weir was successful with a second penalty after a dozen minutes, Gonzalo Garcia reduced the deficit with a long-range effort after a first attempt had come back off the upright, and then the Scotland stand-off added a third of the night after Samuela Vunisa strayed offside. But the home team, while behind on the scoreboard, were on top in the forward exchanges, and reduced the deficit through a Tommy Allan penalty after their maul was halted illegally.

A prolonged assault on the Scots line, in which Quintin Geldenhuys and Vunisa were prominent, seemed sure to end in an Italian try. But, with the referee playing advantage, Allan’s kick to the corner for his outside backs to chase drifted into touch. Play was brought back for the penalty in front of the posts, and the half-Scots No 10 chipped it over to equalise with the last kick of the half.

Scotland would certainly have been flattered had they gone in ahead at the break, and even a 9-9 scoreline was an unfair reflection on Italy’s domination. Even so, the Italians’ superiority in the scrum was an ominous sign as the second half began.

Scotland upped the tempo at the start of that second 40, attacking more directly rather than going through a series of short-gain phases. WP Nel, the Edinburgh tighthead, came on for his debut with half an hour to play as Cotter sought to shore up the scrum.

There was no score throughout the third quarter. Just before the hour, a rare break out of their own half ended with Scotland being awarded a penalty close to the left touchline, but Weir’s attempt went wide.

Then Allan struck again after Scotland had gone over the top in a ruck. He stroked the ball over from a far easier position than Weir had had, and Italy were ahead for the first time in the game at 12-9.

Damien Hoyland came on for his first cap, taking the number of debutants on the night to five - Hardie, Rory Hughes and Stuart McInally all having started. Having fallen behind, Scotland had to take calculated risks rather than succumbing to desperation. Yet, while they often had the pace to get behind the first defensive line, they soon found themselves held up by a second effort.

Horne’s break ten minutes from time was a classic example of that, as, newly on for Richie Vernon, the Glasgow centre surged through to within 15 metres of the line only to be brought to ground by a tackler from either side.

Then, with time running out and optimism evaporating fast, Pyrgos scored, Weir converted, and the mood miraculously lightened.


Pens: Garcia 1, Allan 3.


Try: Pyrgos. Con: Weir. Pens: Weir 3.

Referee: JP Doyle (England). Estimated attendance: 12,000.

Italy: A Masi; G Venditti, T Benvenuti (L McLean 67), G Garcia (C Canna 76), L Sarto; T Allan, G Palazzani (M Violi 76); M Aguero (M Rizzo 51), D Giazzon (M Castrogiovanni 51), L Cittadini (L Ghiraldini 51), Q Geldenhuys, V Bernabo (M Bortolami 54), A Zanni (M Bergamasco 64), F Minto, S Vunisa.

Scotland: G Tonks; S Lamont, R Vernon ( P Horne 68), M Scott, R Hughes (D Hoyland 65); D Taylor, S Hidalgo-Clyne (H Pyrgos 62); G Reid (A Dickinson 46), S McInally (R Ford 56), M Cusack (W Nel 49), R Gray, J Hamilton, A Strokosch, J Hardie (H Watson 59), A Ashe. Unused substitute: K Bryce.