Scotland 26-14 Italy
Scotland took until the game’s dying embers to maintain their eight-year unbeaten run against Italy before a capacity BT Murrayfield crowd this afternoon.
It was not always pretty and for much of the second half the game descended into the painful arm-wrestles that so often characterised games against Italy in the past.
A hat-trick of tries from Blair Kinghorn and a thunderous earlier touchdown from Duhan van der Merwe took Scotland home, but, especially in the second half this was a desperately close-run affair in which Italian tenacity almost put them into a position to post their first win of the campaign.
The final round of the 2023 GUINNESS Six Nations Championship then in which Scotland sought to build on their 50%- win ratio and aimed to finish third in the table for the first time in ten years. Ultimately, they did, (save for any mathematical quirks in the final two games of Super Saturday) but not before a few anxious moments late on.
Italy had a late change at inside centre with Tommaso Menoncello replaced by Luca Morisi, with Marco Zanon slotting in on the bench.
The match ball was delivered by firefighter Graeme Clow from Blue Watch at McDonald Road fire station in Edinburgh, a colleague of Barry Martin who had died in the Jenner’s blaze in January.
Italy kicked off towards the railway end and van der Merwe had an early carry. Italy responded before Kinghorn fired a fine touchfinder down the West Stand touchline.
After a spot of kick tennis, van der Merwe was pinged in contact but from 38 metres Tommaso Allan sclaffed his attempt wide.
It had been a lacklustre start from the hosts and from another contact penalty on half way, Italy opted for the touchline. Their rolling maul cranked into gear and Scotland were caught offside through George Turner for Allan to land the game’s first points (0-3, 7 mins).
Pierre Schoeman and Zander Fagerson – the latter had a notably prominent first-half – led Scotland’s riposte and when Italy played Ben White without the ball, Scotland were awarded their first penalty – which was certainly kickable.
Instead, Kinghorn went for the touchline and Scotland went through the phases off Jamie Ritchie at the lineout.
An offside penalty centre field, saw Turner on an old-fashioned tap, Scotland recycled and Ritchie and Hamish Watson were next in line to take the attack forward. The ball however, deflected to Huw Jones who gave a sumptuous, fizzing pass to van der Merwe.
The winger finished acrobatically in Paolo Garbisi’s tackle and the try was ruled good after TMO confirmation. Kinghorn missed the conversion of van der Merwe’s 17th try for Scotland and fourth against Italy. (5-3, 12 mins).
Almost at once, Scotland were on the wrong side of Mr Gardner again at breakdown and Allan nudged Italy ahead with his second penalty (5-6, 15 mins).
Scotland attacked anew with Kinghorn twice opting for the touchline. Sam Skinner was the target on the west stand side but from another penalty on the east – after Schoeman had been tackled illegally – the timing was out on Ritchie’s leap.
Scotland had been in the Italian 22 for some five minutes now and their scrum was waxing strongly, as the visitors were free-kicked and then penalised on three successive occasions.
On the third, the referee yellow-carded Italian loose-head Marco Riccioni.
Scotland opted to scrum again, White arced right and released Kinghorn who – with Tuipulotu running the dummy line outside him – crashed over to the left of the posts for his 11th try for his country. Kinghorn converted too (12-6, 29 mins).
Scotland could make no further impression on the scoreboard while Italy were short-handed and the half ended with Zander Fagerson winning a turnover penalty, and the hosts uncorking van der Merwe, way off his left wing beat, and Kyle Steyn, in more conventional territory, but the inside pass to Ollie Smith was blocked by an Italian defender and Scotland’s daring was unfortunately not rewarded.
Half-time: Scotland 12-6 Italy
On the restart, a contact penalty for Scotland saw Kinghorn again prompt his forwards up the touchline. From Skinner’s take, Scotland hammered relentlessly through the phases and off the tenth phase, White unleashed Kinghorn who powered through the tackle of Juan Ignacio Brex and Sebastian Negri for his second try of the day. It was patient and well-worked. Again, he converted (19-6, 45 mins).
The game went through an untidy period with Italy dominating possession and Scotland primarily restricted to defensive duties.
On the hour mark, a box kick from Ali Price was countered by the Italians. Again, their attack was well-crafted and when the half-backs linked off ruck ball, Garbisi stabbed a kick through for Allan to dot down for an unconverted try (19-11, 60 mins).
Within minutes a penalty against Jack Dempsey for side entry enabled Garbisi to further eat into Scotland’s advantage and it was now a one-score game (19-14, 65 mins).
Price inspired a Scotland breakaway, as Ben Healy was introduced for his first cap for Scotland but, a contact penalty went Italy’s way and we were in for a nervy closing ten minutes.
A penalty saw Italy opt for touchline and seek to go through the phases and on two occasions, Scotland were caught offside.
However, as Italy battered away close-range, Scotland’s defence held-firm and when the referee awarded a scrum in the shadow of the Scotland posts to the hosts for an Italian knock-on, the relief was palpable.
From the scrum, with the clock showing time almost up, and with a penalty looming courtesy of W P Nel’s arrival at tighthead, Price went right, Kinghorn took the ball at pace and Van Der Merwe blazed up the touchline. He then returned the favour to Kinghorn who romped away for his try hat-trick, the second time he has achieved that feat against Italy, bringing his Scotland try tally to 13 in total . Kinghorn also converted for a haul of 21 points.
Full-time: Scotland 26-14 Italy
Scotland: Ollie Smith; Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu (all Glasgow Warriors), Duhan Van Der Merwe; Blair Kinghorn (both Edinburgh Rugby), Ben White (London Irish); Pierre Schoeman (Edinburgh Rugby), George Turner, Zander Fagerson (both Glasgow Warriors), Sam Skinner (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Exeter Chiefs), Jamie Ritchie CAPTAIN, Hamish Watson (both Edinburgh Rugby), Jack Dempsey (Glasgow Warriors).
Subs: Ewan Ashman (Sale Sharks) for Turner (50 mins), Rory Sutherland (Ulster Rugby) for Schoeman (59 mins), W P Nel (Edinburgh Rugby) for Zander Fagerson (70 mins), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors) for Gray (59 mins), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors) for Watson (50 mins), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) for White (59 mins), Ben Healy (Munster Rugby) for Smith (68 mins), Cameron Redpath (Bath Rugby) for Tuipulotu (68 mins).
Italy: Tommaso Allan; Pierre Bruno, Juan Ignacio Brex, Luca Morisi, Simone Gesi ; Paolo Garbisi, Alssandro Fusco ; Danilo Fischetti, Giacomo Nicotera, Marco Riccioni, Edoardo Iachizzi, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro CAPTAIN, Lorenzo Cannone.
Subs: Marco Manfredi for Nicotera (72 mins) for Riccioni (56 mins), Federico Zani for Fischetti (56 mins), Pietro Ceccarelli for Gesi (28-39 mins) and for Fischetti (56mins), Niccolo Cannone for Iachizzi (22- 32 mins and again in 42 mins), Giovanni Pettinelli for Cannone (59 mins), Manuel Zuliani, for Negri (43mins) Alessandro Garbisi for Fusco (50 mins), Marco Zanon for Morisi (70 mins)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia) Assistant referees: Matt Carley (England) and Craig Evans (Wales) TMO: Brett Cronan (Australia).
Yellow card: Marco Riccioni (Italy)
GUINNESS Player of the Match: Jack Dempsey (Scotland).