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‘Yo-yo life continues for despondent Scots in Rome’


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Half an hour after Italy delivered a victory so seismic it might have brought all the statues in Rome back to life, the clean-up mob moved into Stadio OIimpico.

Hoists were wheeled out to bring down the goalposts. Water guns blasted the pitch markings. The corner flags were whisked away and the branding was peeled off.

If only Scotland’s nightmares could have disappeared in similar fashion. As much as Italian joy will linger, so too will Scotland despondency.

Twenty-one unanswered Italian points, seven consecutive penalties conceded, a 12-point lead blown and a lack of discipline that would be truly shocking had we not already known Gregor Townsend’s team, for all its excellence at times, has a flakiness it will probably never lose.

Flamboyance is part of this team. Creativity, ambition, tries from the gods – all of this is an element of what they are.

They can turn in big performances, they can beat better-resourced teams. They can thrill, as they did in the first half against Wales, as they did when scoring those wonderful tries to put England to sleep, as they’ve done routinely in the Townsend age.

What’s also in them – and what will hold them back from being true contenders in this tournament – is a propensity to implode, to make daft decisions under pressure, to give away penalties that keep opponents believing, to reveal a soft underbelly and invite hungry rivals to attack it, which Italy did.

And, in terms of mental strength, the Italians wiped the floor with Scotland.

Apparently, the Scots have a mental strength coach – his official title may be loftier – but where’s the evidence he’s having an impact? A near collapse in Cardiff and a total disintegration in Rome. And now a trip to Dublin against the wounded Irish.

Are we into the realms of requiring a mental strength coach to help the mental strength coach in his attempts to pick Scotland off the floor for a final push in a championship that has gone to pot?

The way things transpired at Twickenham, had Scotland done their stuff in Rome, they would have had a shot at the title in Dublin next Saturday. It was like a second kick to the gut for the vast army of visiting supporters, 15,000-strong.

The boffins got to work into the night. Scotland can still win the championship, they concluded. If Wales beat France on Sunday and England lose to France next Saturday then a 39-point victory over Ireland at the Aviva would probably get the job done.

That’s as long as Ireland don’t get a losing point. Archimedes would have nodded his approval at the arithmetic while laughing his head off at the possibility.

‘Scotland minds turned to marshmallow’

Scotland were good for half an hour in Rome. They were clinical and in control. Zander Fagerson drove over after Scotland’s forwards put their counterparts under intolerable pressure.

Kyle Steyn scored another after quick thinking at a line-out and significant carries from Duhan van der Merwe and Jack Dempsey. Pierre Schoeman got on the end of a maul and that was try number three after 27 minutes. Scotland led 22-10. And it was almost easy.

George Turner was on full thunder mode. Andy Christie was having a stormer. Finn Russell wasn’t electrifying, but he dropped in little moments of class, like the 50-22 kick that sparked the score for Schoeman.

They looked a confident team making light of the fatalism that some, or many, of their fans would have carried with them to Rome. They looked mature. A team you could trust.

And then it turned. It’s ridiculous to think the penalty Paolo Garbisi landed to make it 22-13 after 35 minutes would have sent little shoots of concern around the place, but it did. Turner was done for not releasing and Martin Page-Relo put up another three points.

Italy dominated the remaining minutes of the half. The home crowd became engaged after being silenced for so long.

Scotland needed a settler and thought they had one when George Horne scored two minutes into the second half. It was ruled out, correctly. Two minutes after that, Blair Kinghorn put in an awful kick that proved the catalyst for Louis Lynagh to score.

Italy trailed by one point and it had all become redolent of Cardiff.

It’s not that Italy were foot-perfect. They weren’t. They didn’t need to be.

Their line-out was a bit of a mess, their handling was suspect at times, but they kept barrelling on. And they would have recognised the existential crisis happening down the other end.

Scotland conceded penalty after penalty after penalty – and this time there could be no criticism of bad refereeing calls. This was a team losing the plot and revealing the other side of its personality.

They couldn’t look after ball, couldn’t build phases and pressure, exerted no control and had the look of lost lambs.

Was there a Scottish leader out there? Somebody to calm everybody down and get them back on track? It didn’t look like it.

Was there an Italian leader? A ton of them. Juan Ignacio Brex, Michele Lamaro, Ross Vintcent, Sebastian Negri. That’s just for starters.

Penalties don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur because your opponent is forcing you into doing things you don’t want to do but do anyway because the game is in the balance and the atmosphere is intense and the desperation is high.

A mind can turn to marshmallow in that environment – and that’s what happened to Scotland.

A penalty count of 5-4 against them at the break became 6-4, 7-4, 8-4, 9-4. Stephen Varney scored to make it 28-22 to Italy. The penalty count stretched to 10-4, 11-4, 12-4. Where were Scotland’s on-field problem-solvers? They didn’t exist.

Eventually, Sam Skinner ploughed over to make it a two-point game with three minutes left. Scotland went through more than 20 phases in the last play, but you knew what was coming.

A team that’s coughed up ball and has made some wrong moves doesn’t just become a ruthless machine in the last seconds. Kinghorn tried a risky offload, the ball was spilled and the game ended.

Italy deserved it and, big-picture stuff, this is a tremendous result for the Six Nations, perhaps a coming of age victory for the Azzurri.

For Scotland, it’s the same old thing. The yo-yo life. So much that’s good, but too much that’s not good enough. At their best they do things that only champion sides can do, but at their worst they do things that no champion side would ever do.

Back to the drawing board. Again.

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