Finally it’s happened. Scotland have won a six nations match, the first of Vern Cotter’s reign, ending a nine match losing run. What’s more, it was fairly clinical, running in three tries in a 36-20 defeat of Italy. It was also desperately needed, ending a run of nine successive defeats in the Championship, their worst run since the early 1950s. However, with matches against France and Ireland still to come, Scotland will be hoping to use this victory as a launch pad for the remainder of the Six Nations. If they won a second game, it would only be the second time in a decade.
But they will certainly take heart from this performance, especially coming off the back of an equally impressive narrow loss against Wales. What were the positives? Well for a start the fact that Scotland were for the first time not chasing the game was to the credit of this young side. After conceding an early penalty, tries from John Barclay and John Hardie gave them a 17-3 lead, supporting a great confidence not often seen. Italy responded with scores of their own from Leonardo Ghiraldini and Marco Fuser, and Scotland lost Finn Russell and WP Nel to the sin-bin in the last quarter, but Greig Laidlaw’s coolness, kicking everything after the interval, was endemic of the nerveless Scottish display, kicking a penalty in the 66th minute that made it 29-20, from distance. The manner in which, two minutes from time, fast-paced passing through the backs sent Seymour in to finish under the posts showed a mentality and a coolness under pressure that simply has not been visible before in this young Scottish side, to hold their nerve and remain calm under pressure and simultaneously take risks.
The real positive from this game though was the Scottish scrum. It has long been thought that Scotland possessed some of the most exciting backs in Northern Hemisphere Rugby, with Stuart Hogg, once again putting in a superb display. But the key to this victory was the forward pack, winning numerous penalties and providing the backbone for the flair of the backline. Finally Scotland has put in a performance where the whole team can be seen to have performed, the team outplaying their opponents in every area of the pitch.
The one real negative for Scotland is that errors made, if made against better teams than Italy, such as the two that they still have to play, will be deeply punished. Playing fifteen of the last twenty minutes with fourteen men for example, would be child’s play for the brutish French team who will be marching up to Murrayfield on Sunday. In addition, there were consistent if infrequent silly errors from Scottish players: a missed penalty to touch, a squint throw in and several inexcusable missed tackles prevented this from really being seen as an utterly transformed Scottish performance.
Further it must be remembered that this was an Italy team that Scotland are frankly, at the moment, expected to beat. Not only are Italy lacking in quality, but they are a team in some confusion. This was reflected in the press conference after where captain Sergio Parisse and coach Jacques Brunel did not make eye contact, suggesting Italy is in need of new direction, either on the pitch or from the side lines, with a Six Nations whitewash looking all but certain after a disappointing World Cup. Italy made some questionable decisions, such as choosing to kick to the corner, when an easy three points were on offer. That would have put them one converted try away with twenty minutes to play and Finn Russell still sin-binned.
The cool and experienced heads of Johnny Sexton and Rory Best will not make the same mistakes. Performances in the other Six Nations tournaments, at women’s and Under-20 level, have been mixed for Scotland. In the women’s tournament they are rock bottom after three games, but in the Under-20 competition, however, they are currently third after two wins in three games, including one against England. So can they win another Six Nations match? Absolutely they can. In this Six Nations, they have proved that they can provide serious competition for the best teams.
Unfortunately, they in all likelihood won’t. Winning another match would require beating a France team that also finally look like they have a semblance of a team mentality, to complement their world class players. Beating Ireland would in all likelihood cause a crisis for the Irish national team, who have yet to win a game, and regardless of the result against Italy, will be highly motivated to vanquish Scotland after failing to defeat Wales, England or France. It doesn’t seem likely that they will. However, these performances, especially if they continue, are at least a sign that Scotland coach Vern Cotter’s rhetoric is not empty; Scotland is progressing and can no doubt continue to do so.