It feels like the 2023 Six Nations only started a couple of weeks ago, and yet here we are kicking off Super Sunday at Murrayfield. Scotland began this tournament with 2 wins for the first time in Six Nations history, but fell off against France and Ireland, but had the chance to finish on a high against an Italian team who were without a win despite vastly improved performances this season.
The Scots came in with Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg both missing through injury, and soon found themselves behind as a series of Italian penalties allowed them to put the Scots under pressure before settling for 3 points from the boot of Tommaso Allan. A penalty against Seb Negri from playing the nine at a breakdown gave Scotland possession their own shot at possession in the 22, which they eventually converted by sending Duhan van der Merwe over in the corner despite the best efforts of Paolo Garbisi, though Blair Kinghorn was unable to add the extras from the touchline with his first kick. Italy hit back immediately with another Allan penalty as Italy continued to target the Scottish breakdown, but after an error playing out from the back ended in the Azzurri giving away a penalty in their own 22, the Scots found their inability to convert hurt them again. However Angus Gardner and his officials were doing their job with the classic imbalance that we have come to expect from Italy’s matches, and after a series of scrum penalties against Italy, Angus Gardner sent Marco Riccioni to the bin and the hosts took immediate advantage of the extra man to send Blair Kinghorn over for the try. Italy’s defence allowed them to see out the rest of the sin bin period without any further score, but as they returned to a full complement, Scotland had one more chance to attack with the final play of the half, only for debutant wing Simone Gesi to get in the way of Kyle Steyn’s offload to Ollie Smith when the fullback would have had the line at his mercy, resulting in a 12-6 halftime score.
As the second half began, more questionable officiating allowed Scotland to kick a penalty deep into the Italian 22, and after an -phase siege of the line, Kinghorn managed to fight his way through a double tackle to stretch over the line. Italy had a chance to hi back almost immediately as Alessandro Fusco slipped through a gap on the fringe of the ruck, but his pass to the supporting Gesi was woefully off-target, prompting an awful 5 minutes for the scrum half that ended with him being replaced by Alessandro Garbisi. Italy refused to give up however, and just after the hour they got the try they deserved as Allan got on the end of Paolo Garbisi’s blind side grubber to go over in the corner, and though his touchline conversion sailed wide, Paolo Garbisi kicked a penalty just minutes later to bring the game within 5 points with 15 minutes remaining. And with just 4 minutes remaining, a penalty allowed them to kick up to the corner, and after the initial maul was stopped, Alessandro Garbis knocked on in contact with van der Merwe while stretching for the line, and Scotland attacked off the resulting scrum with the clock in the red, going the length through van der Merwe and Kinghorn, who completed his hattrick (securing the bonus point) and added the conversion for a personal tally of 21 points and a 26-14 victory that consigned Italy to the most undeserving of Wooden Spoons.
Scotland have a big call to make regarding Blair Kinghorn. While he will surely be on the plane to France (injury permitting), the question over his role in the team surely persists. Non-selection and then injuries have severely limited Adam Hastings’ gametime at Test level in recent years, and the inexperience of the next options (Ross Thompson, who is also currently unavailable, and Edinburgh-bound Ben Healy) has really left Kinghorn as the de facto back-up to Finn Russell.
And yet the questions over his ability to be a Test-level fly half remain. While he has all the attributes to play the position, he does not have a wealth of experience playing the position at the top levels of the game, and as a result the team appears much more formulaic and easy to defend against compared to when Finn Russell is in charge of things. And then in a tight match, his lack of reliability as a goal kicker could also prove crucial as when he is at 10 there is no other regular goal kicker in the XV.
Assuming everyone is available when the World Cup comes around, Gregor Townsend has a big call to make. Does he trust Kinghorn as a 10 on the biggest stage of all? Or does he look to take another specialist at the position and utilise Kinghorn as a fullback (where I would argue he could actually improve the team by starting instead of centurion Stuart Hogg) and emergency cover at 10?
Italy have learned from this tournament. They have seen how playing out from deep has hurt them, but also seen how reliable their defence has been for much of the tournament. And today, with Scotland’s chief creative talent Finn Russell absent, the Azzurri have brought it all together.
Though there were some moments where they tried playing from deep (which generally cost them), there was much more focus on playing the game in the right area of the pitch, kicking deep when in their own half and challenging Scotland to run it back. And then they were meeting the Scottish attack with a sturdy defence and, even more importantly, having success at the breakdown. While they earned a couple of crucial turnover penalties, what they also managed to do was slow down the Scottish ball, which meant that by the time Ben White was getting the ball away, the hosts were generally looking at a set defensive line, which Blair Kinghorn struggled to break down.
This is a timely reminder that we’re only a year on from the first real flashes of Italy being truly competitive. This is a young team that is still growing and finding itself. And as they learn to manage the game and cut out the errors in attack, this will become a very hard team to play against.
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