Six Nations 2020: Scotland emerge from Italy win with renewed hope

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland

Just before the start of the Six Nations, Gregor Townsend said he wanted to transform his team into one that was a nightmare to play against.

The Scotland head coach said nothing about turning them into a team that was a nightmare to watch, but that was the way of it in Rome on Saturday.

As a Test match, this was no oil painting. There was one flash of colour of world class from Stuart Hogg, and a back-row performance in defence, attack and on the floor that was stirring, but mostly it was grey, error-ridden and eminently forgettable.

Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury delivered big-time and were the game's most influential operators, carrying consistently and hitting prodigiously while having a dominant say at the breakdown, a problem area in the first two games.

These three are still young enough to forge a formidable partnership for years to come. On a victorious but humdrum day, their collective effort was something to get excited about.

Scotland did what they had to do and won, but theirs was a performance riven by stress and bad decisions. They looked exactly what they are - a team that was thrust into a crisis by the controversy over fly-half Finn Russell's suspension from the squad and then buffeted by two sore losses to Ireland and England. A side whose confidence is low but whose spirit, in fairness, is high.

They almost had to fight against themselves to get their victory, but they deserved it. Italy reverted to their form from Cardiff rather than picking up where they left off in Paris, but keeping them scoreless by way of terrific scramble defence and accuracy and excellence at the breakdown was a decent feat.

That's three games down in this Six Nations and Scotland's line has only been breached twice. Against the same opponents last season, the Scots gave up 11 tries.

In terms of defensive organisation and aggression, they've taken a major leap forward under Steve Tandy's coaching. In terms of fluency and execution and ambition in attack, there's still a long road to travel with the runaway French coming at them in the opposite direction.

'Not a classic, but it was needed'

The quality in Rome wasn't even in the same parish as the belter that came soon after between Wales and France in Cardiff, but Scotland's record on the road in the past two decades doesn't allow much room for quibbles. Expectations are low. Had you offered every Scotland fan a 17-point victory before kick-off, you'd have had the hand taken off you in gratitude.

The minutes after the final whistle were strange as the weird historic element of the win slowly started to dawn on Scots who weren't exactly giddy with excitement at what they'd seen.

You have to go back to 2002 to find the last time Scotland won by as many points on the road in the Six Nations and you have to go back a whole lot further to find the away wins in the championship that surpassed this margin. In 137 years, there have only been two - Jim Aitken's Grand Slammers in Dublin in 1984 and Freddie Turner's unstoppables in Paris in 1913.

Rome on Saturday didn't feel like a win for the annals - and it wasn't. But it was desperately needed. Chances were wasted, balls were dropped, kicks went out on the full, the control at half-back was virtually non-existent, the tempo was maddeningly stop-start, the atmosphere was muted.

The stadium wasn't even full. It was, in most senses, a second-rate Test compared to what Scotland's next opponents, France, are serving up these days.

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg on his way to a try against Italy
Hogg's stunning try helped Scotland to victory and shook off his errors in the opening two matches

Scotland played better than this in defeat in Dublin, but they got one lousy point to show for it. In Rome, they got four - it should have been five - and were glad of them. When you've been dumped out of the World Cup in the group stage and haven't won a game in the championship in six attempts then you'll have an easy job in drawing the positives from this, as Stuart Hogg did in the aftermath.

The full-back took minor umbrage at what he thought was negative questioning in the post-match news conference. The queries put to him were perfectly valid, but you could also see Hogg's point. This was his first win as Scotland captain after two wounding defeats and a fair amount of stick aimed in his direction. Any raining on the parade was bound to be met with a tetchy response. Hogg has waited for a long time for a bit of joy in that jersey.

His try was a wondrous thing - Hogg of old, when the young man was bursting on to the international scene and knew no fear. Hogg - and Townsend - had a weight lifted off their shoulders in Italy and both spoke later about their hopes that this win will now allow the team to play with more freedom and less tension in attack.

They'll need to. Unbeaten France are flaky no more. They now look like the real deal, all power and craft and resilience. A rugby nation reborn.

Scotland will welcome them with some trepidation but a little hope too. Saturday was not euphoric, but in the rebuilding of this team, it was hugely important.


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