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Six Nations: Four main points from Scotland’s win over Italy to end their Six Nations campaign

The victorious Scotland team with The Cuttitta Cup after their win over Italy.
The victorious Scotland team with The Cuttitta Cup after their win over Italy.

The spectacular finale of a length of the field try against Italy at Murrayfield was a compelling full-stop to Scotland’s Six Nation campaign.

But Blair Kinghorn’s thrilling hat-trick try should not serve to camouflage what went before. Despite skipper Jamie Ritchie’s assertion that the result was ‘never in doubt’, it didn’t remotely look that way for the last five minutes with Italy pressing for a go-ahead score.

I wholeheartedly shared Stuart Hogg’s immediate TV reaction that the Scots got off the hook – mainly thanks to a fumble by Italy’s replacement lock Giovanni Pennetelli as the visitors pressed for a historic win.

Rory Sutherland and WP Nel, properly recalled to action on the bench then secured the win with the scrum penalty advantage before Kinghorn and Duhan van der Merwe went galloping up the other end.

Gregor Townsend pointed out that it finished four tries to one, which sounds pretty conclusive.

But even if you take that at face value, you still wonder why just one more Italian surge in the dying seconds would have surely created a different result. And why it even came to that after Scotland led 19-6 with 15 minutes to play.

But if we generally dismiss the coulda-shouldas when the results go against Scotland, maybe we should be consistent when the bounce goes there way.

It was a decent Six Nations – arguably the best under Gregor Townsend. There’s definite signs of the team moving forward, stylistically, tactically and in terms of results.

But does Saturday’s game show that this might not be sustainable for the World Cup and the rest of 2023?

Three wins – is that enough now?

Scotland finish third in the Six Nations for only the second time in a decade. They won three games – most people’s bottom line, and the same as in 2018, 2020 and 2021.

But that fourth win is proving a tough nut to crack. They put themselves behind the eight-ball at 19-0 down in the first quarter in Paris, and then flunked the second half against Ireland.

For all the flair and the general approval of the way Scotland are playing, Ireland (again) and South Africa (champions and World No 3) await in the pool phase of the World Cup.

Beating England so well at Twickenham and hammering Wales at Murrayfield were great, especially the manner in which Scotland played to do it. But it was well past time for both to happen.

It’s now overdue for the Scots to find a way to beat the really good sides – South Africa, France and especially Ireland.

Progression should never stop. If you accept Scotland made progress in the 2023 Six Nations, the next step is clearly to beat the best.

The hat-trick hero, but still not the starter?

Blair Kinghorn off bagged another hat-trick against Italy. But there’s no question Scotland didn’t look as fluid with him at 10 instead of Finn Russell.

There were quite a few loose passes and Sione Tuipulotu didn’t look as influential without Russell to interact with.

Kinghorn’s physique brought him his first two tries going through tackles. I thought the first was actually a blown set move, but he scored anyway. After a move to full-back, his pace and support lines were on show for his third.

But at 10, Russell’s clearly a better organiser, a far better distributor, and much more of a consisted and varied threat. Kinghorn’s worth, at the moment at least, is as an impact player off the bench able to bring his power and pace to bear, especially when the game breaks up.

He’s a very useful weapon at a number of roles. He might be a future 10. But there’s no question who the present premier playmaker for Scotland is.

The breakdown, and discipline

For the second game in a row, Scotland had issues against a combative pack in the contact area and a referee who was content to let a contest develop on the deck.

Italy had the ascendancy in this area for much of the second half, and at the end the Scots were struggling with the penalty count.

They’ve gone from being the most penalised side in last year’s championship to at least parity this year. At least until getting back into bad habits with 15 conceded against Italy.

Gregor Townsend thought that was an outlier, but did highlight an example of ‘packaging’ penalties in threes. That was a significant problem in 2022. In the World Cup, keeping penalties to single figures is a must.

The Scots did get a fine performance at No 8 from Jack Dempsey, but it seemed to me the impact in the contact area backed off in the last two games. I’d like to see the returning Rory Darge get a concerted run in the four World Cup warm-ups.

Gregor Townsend – it might still be time to move on

Townsend said there had been initial discussions about his future – his current deal expires after the World Cup. He expected to have a few days off and those discussions – one assumes with CEO Mark Dodson – will continue in more detail.

It sounds like a deal will be hammered out prior to the tournament in France. This might be the reality of modern contract negotiations in rugby. But offering a new multi-year deal without knowing how the Scots fair in France seems ridiculous.

Given the difficulty of their pool, it’s not difficult to imagine Scotland failing to qualify for the quarter-finals for the third time. If they do fail, Townsend will have been head coach for two of those three.

As noted above I loved the way Scotland played for most of this Six Nations. I also fully accept the squad mantra that progress has been made. But the hard facts of the results show they’re not really any further on than they have been for some time.

I also suspect Scotland at the 2024 Six Nations will look a lot more like the team who played against Italy than that played in the other four games.

It’s not hard to imagine Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Richie Gray and Hamish Watson, just for four, stepping back from international rugby this year.

Would it make sense for Gregor – for himself – to stay on with the potential turnover of so many experienced men?

While there was a tentative indication he wanted to stay, there were also references to ‘reflection’ and ‘I need some time to think about it’.