Scotland win in Rome
A last-minute Duncan Weir drop-goal secured a vital 21-20 Six Nations victory for Scotland over Italy at Stadio Olimpico on Saturday.
With the clock creeping towards 80 minutes, Weir stepped up to banish the demons from Round Two's English horror show, and perhaps go some way to answering those who question his character and execution when the chips are down.
A brace of penalties and an opportunistic converted try from ex-Scotland U20 cap Tommaso Allan had given the Italians a commanding 13-3 lead at half-time, before Alex Dunbar crossed to bring Scotland back into the game. Dunbar bagged his second to turn the match on its head, but Italy hit back immediately through a well-taken Josh Furno try, before Weir's late strike.
Games involving Scotland and Italy are not generally filed under the heading marked "classic", but despite the play often becoming fragmented - punctuated by errors and infringements as players struggled to match their ambition with accuracy - it was appetising fare for the neutral.
After a dull first half, we were treated to three quality tries, excitement and a thrilling finale as the lead changed hands time and again in the final stages.
The Scots completed the basic skills with far more precision than in Rounds One and Two, but typically struggled to perform them well under pressure until late in the game.
Their lineout that misfired chronically against Ireland and England was a different beast in Rome; Jim Hamilton marking the card of Azzurri hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini early on, and the calls running smoothly with Scott Lawson's throwing.
But though the Scots ruled the skies, the scrummage proved a real worry for the visitors - they conceded a penalty at each of the opening three set-pieces as Moray Low toiled and buckled under the pressure. The Glasgow Warriors tighthead was withdrawn before half-time.
Allan opened the scoring for the hosts after a rare first half foray into the Scottish 22; Ryan Wilson straying offside before the move broke down metres from the line.
Skipper Greig Laidlaw levelled things up for the Scots shortly after, before Allan miscued a chance to restore his side's lead when a monstrous Italian scrummage splintered the visiting eight.
Scotland missed a glorious opportunity to break the deadlock as Weir burst clear up the left-hand-side following a turnover, but in a very Scottish display of profligacy, failed to release Sean Lamont, his completion on this occasion letting him down when it mattered.
With the penalty count rising rapidly against the visitors, referee Steve Walsh warned Laidlaw further breakdown offences would result in sterner punishment, and Allan made no mistake with his third attempt to nudge Italy ahead once more on the half hour mark.
And it was the pivot himself who struck a huge blow for the hosts right on half-time. With Sergio Parisse carrying strongly into the away 22, Allan picked a smart line to scythe through the disorganised Scottish defence and burrow over for a five-pointer. He added the simple conversion and sent Italy into the changing rooms with a ten-point lead.
The Scots began the second forty in similar fashion to the first - bags of endeavour, little exactitude. They were rewarded with a Laidlaw penalty five minutes in, and then turned down a second chance for three points after exerting huge pressure on the Italian line.
It looked like the opportunity had been wasted as Laidlaw's quick tap eventually went to ground. But Scotland won the ball back on the ten-metre line, and swift hands saw Dunbar cut through some haphazard midfield defence and outpace Allan to the corner. The captain pulled his conversion from out wide.
With the gap cut to two points, Scotland grew in confidence, and mixed up their attack well to breach the home 22. With twelve minutes to go, they produced the play of the game. Lamont barrelled over halfway off first-phase ball, and offloaded to replacement Chris Cusiter who brilliantly flicked the ball to the onrushing Dunbar. With Matt Scott in support, Dunbar took on Luke McLean and scrambled beyond the despairing defence to finish. With Laidlaw substituted, Weir knocked over the conversion from straight in front.
But Italy were not done. After poor defence allowed Leonardo Sarto to worm his way through midfield, the Azzurri stormed into the Scottish 22. Shifting play smartly, they stretched the visitors from side to side, before Parisse exploited space and support to send Furno crashing over to level the scores once again. Replacement Luciano Orquera's nerve held from out wide, and the Italians reclaimed the lead.
That set up a truly enthralling finish. Scotland inched their way forward as time ticked away, and after Dave Denton rescued a scrappy scrum ball, Weir let fly a booming effort under Italian pressure to send the Scots wild, and ease the tension on boss Scott Johnson.
Man of the Match: Alex Dunbar was the pick of the bunch; a constant threat to the Italian defence, he scored two excellent tries.
Moment of the Match: Duncan Weir's drop, a moment epitomising why we love sport.
Villain of the Match: A really tough day at the office for Moray Low, who was turned inside out in the tight for 38 minutes before being unceremoniously "hooked".
Tries: Allan, Furno
Cons: Allan, Orquera
Pens: Allan 2
Tries: Dunbar 2
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Alberto De Marchi.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Paul Derbyshire, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Tommaso Iannone.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Moray Low, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Ryan Grant
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Al Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Dave Denton, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Max Evans
Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)
Assistant referees: Jerome Garces (Fra), Luke Pearce (Eng)
TMO: Geoff Warren (Eng)
By Jamie Lyall