Win over Italy lets Robinson’s men head for World Cup in high spirits
Of the previous six campaigns, in their last games prior to departure, they have suffered defeats by England (1987), Romania (1991), Ireland (2003) and South Africa (2007), with only home victories against relatively humble Romanian opposition (in 1995 and 1999) to break the sequence.
So, positive steps have already been taken and scratching the surface of the latest performance will also reveal an almost incomparable strength in depth for the professional era. Nowhere is this more evident than at scrum-half where, in 61 minutes, Mike Blair gave way to another British and Irish Lion in Chris Cusiter.
This was no ordinary hand-over, though, and television only captured a fragment of the prolonged exchange in which Blair seemed to go out of his way to implore Cusiter to finish the job regardless of the fact this could mean putting his own position on the World Cup trip in jeopardy.
This is no tale of a mere two scrum-halves either, as sitting in the stand were Rory Lawson, Scotland’s captain last time out, and Greig Laidlaw, arguably the find of the 2010-11 campaign, not least because of his versatility in also covering stand off.
What other sides, with the possible exception of the All Blacks, would give for such resources and the most encouraging aspect of all has been the way the players have accepted rivalries as a means of propelling themselves to new heights.
Blair, in the aftermath of a match in which his quick reactions on a charge down earned him a sixth international try to add to Ally Dickinson’s earlier maiden effort, said: “It’s quite strange because the older you get you remain really competitive but there is an understanding that you can only do as well as you can do.
“You can’t blame the other guy for taking your place and ultimately we are trying to make Scotland win. It is the same with Rory and Greig as well. We are working together to try to make each of us as good as possible.
“There is definitely a bit of camaraderie and banter around that as well.”
Cusiter had similar sentiments as he reflected on 19 minutes of substitute duty which marked the end of a prolonged injury hell and in all probability a comeback to the Test arena for the first time since March 2010.
He said: “Mike had a good game and he obviously scored that try at a great time for the team.
“It took a bit of pressure off. Mike, Greig, Rory and I have been working really hard all summer.
“There’s a lot of banter between us but we all get on well. It’s a bit of competition, obviously, but it is healthy, as it has been (between himself and Blair) for seven years.” Cusiter expressed his relief that he had been able to stake a claim after his injury woes. “It was quite tough coming on – the game was quite loose,” he said.
“But I was really pleased to get back on the pitch. My body feels good. Hopefully I’m in the squad now and able to make a good push to start in the World Cup.”
Against Italy, Blair played with the energy and purpose of somebody who knew he had a posse of rivals on his trail and, when coach Andy Robinson took pleasure afterwards in the speed with which the defensive line closed down the Italians, he could well have had his starting scrum half in mind.
Quite apart from his effort and tempo, as well as a first Test try since scoring against Italy in Rome three years ago, Blair was spotted launching himself into the face of visiting stand-off Luciano Orquera. It was an all-round display best described as sharp and perhaps only equalled by Edinburgh colleague Nick De Luca in midfield. As the second-most capped Scot on the pitch (behind Nathan Hines) when Italy pulled back to within a missed touchline conversion of taking the lead in 48 minutes, Blair obviously would have played a role in helping the team re-group.
What better way, too, than with a try that was the vital moment in an inevitably scrappy game given the rustiness on both sides?
“We were just starting to have a wee bit pressure put on us. They were starting to strangle us a wee bit,” said Blair.
“The Italians were playing in exactly the way the Italians can and you have to try to get ahead and give yourselves a buffer.
“We have had a lot of battles against Italy certainly while I have been involved since 2002. A lot of the games are like that and the only time I can remember us getting away from them was the 2003 World Cup warm up game when we put 40 points on them.
“If you let them stay within the eight-point buffer they keep working. They have some great players including [the impressive right-wing] Benvenuti, and others so you need to keep ahead.
“Sometimes it just takes a lucky break like I had. The charge down was one of those things you can do 20 or 30 times and get nothing out of it with the ball going straight into touch. Then, sometimes you get a try out of it. I was really fortunate it landed in the right kind of place for me and was easy to get to.”
Granted Blair didn’t have time to perform the somersault en route to the touchdown that he once built into a score against Japan in Perth but he performed the notable act of making awareness of time, space and surroundings seem easy.”
From there on the Scots continually turned the screw, aided by Cusiter who admitted, given his lack of recent game time, that booting the ball into the stands when the stadium clock signalled no-side hadn’t been easy.
However, as always, team needs came first with the Italian job done, Cusiter remarking: “Knowing the squad announcement for New Zealand was coming up everyone wanted to get the ball off the pitch – that was the best possible way to preserve everyone.”
Actually, the Scots had been given a minor scare down the home straight as they battled with 14 men, winger Nicki Walker having been stretched off with knee damage when all the subs had been sent on.
“We had the ball so we had a quick chat about basically keeping it a bit tighter. There were only four minutes left so the idea was to hold on to the ball. They turned the line over so we had to end up defending,” admitted Cusiter.
One half-break apart, Italy were comfortably repelled during this period but they had earlier served notice of what they could do in broken play. After Dan Parks had kicked a penalty and converted Dickinson’s try, which was created by Richie Vernon and Max Evans, the visitors countered from long range through Benvenuti with Bergamasco converting
A Parks penalty made it 13-7 at half-time and although Semenzato crossed for Italy, the missed conversion meant Scotland were never behind at any stage and sealed victory through Blair’s try and Parks’ conversion.
That also means they have an opportunity against Romania in the opening World Cup match to reel off a fourth straight Test win for the first time in nine years.
Scotland: R Lamont, Evans, De Luca, Morrison, Danielli (Walker 55 min), Parks (Jackson 61), Blair (Cusiter 61), Dickinson, Lawson (Hall 70), Low (Murray 54), Hines (Gray 61), Kellock, captain, Brown, Vernon (Rennie 74), Barclay.
Italy: Masi, Benvenuti, Canale, Garcia, Bergamasco; Orquera (Bocchino, 56), (Semenzato, Lo Cicero (Cittadini, 71), Ongaro (D’Apice, 40), Castrogiovanni, del Fava (Furno 50), van Zyl, Derbyshire (Zanni 61), Parisse, captain, Barbieri.
Referee: D Pearson (Eng).