Scotland were stirring their pasta with a wooden spoon last night, or at least contemplating the looming prospect of that fate, which they have not suffered since 1985. A supine performance in what had been billed from the start as the crucial match of the RBS Six Nations' Championship for both these sides helped hand victory to the Italians, who were certainly in no mood to pass up the opportunity.
A couple of hundred fans joined the victorious Azzurri on the field at the end as the home captain, Andrea De Rossi, ran a lap of honour, brandishing the red, white and green Italian flag. It was far from pandemonium on a grand scale - perhaps reflecting Scotland's advance billing as potential fall guys - but a happy scene nonetheless. De Rossi deserved his broad smiles. His brand of muscular commitment to the cause epitomised Italy's approach, and his leadership, too, stood the test as Scotland faded from contention in the later stages. And of course there was the simple statistic that this was only Italy's third win since joining the championship in 2000, in their 23rd fixture.
The man of the match, Italy's prop Martin Castrogiovanni, stripped down to his underwear during the celebrations, imitating the actions of scudetto-winning Serie A footballers who hog the headlines in these parts. This win will not make front-page news - today's collision of Roma v Inter holds sway, for sure - but defeat might have set Italy's progress back, to the detriment of the tournament. John Kirwan, whose future as Italy's coach was reckoned to be very short in the event of defeat, could not have asked for much more from his side. They were physically up for the challenge, shrugged off injuries to two key players and seized on Scotland's occasionally calamitous hesitancy to secure what was always likely to be a close verdict.
The fact that the game was played almost entirely between the respective 22s, with hardly a single break to speak of, did not prevent a high degree of conjecture surrounding the crucial score. The teams had gone in at half-time level at 9-9 after three penalties from Italy's South African-born fly-half, Roland De Marigny, replied to in kind by Chris Paterson.
The tide took a significant turn in the first two minutes of the second half. Scotland, with their replacement scrum-half Mike Blair still getting his bearings, were disrupted at a scrum, and Blair's opposite number, Paul Griffen, box-kicked downfield, just as he did with great effect on numerous other occasions. This one forced the retreating Simon Webster to find touch, Stuart Grimes and Gordon Bulloch were harried at the line-out and Italy's hooker, Fabio Ongaro, dived through for a try - Italy's first this year after two blanks in the defeats by England and France.
Scotland's coach, Matt Williams, queried the decision afterwards, and there did seem to be a fumble by Ongaro which might have been a knock-on. In the process the ball appeared to hit his face, which is legal, if painful. Referee Nigel Whitehouse saw no need to consult the video official, and though De Marigny's conversion hit the post, Italy led 14-9 and did not look back.
Williams was also regretful that when Scotland, at length, forced their way over the goal-line after 61 minutes there was no try awarded and Italy cleared. But the Australian coach, with three defeats in three matches since taking the job after the World Cup, made no other excuses.
"We were outmuscled by the Italians," he said. "In terms of courage we were OK, but physically we're behind and that puts us at a disadvantage before the start."
Worryingly for Paterson, the skipper was unable to coax an effective comeback from his team. The harsh truth was that, from fly-half, Paterson could see only too well that his forwards were failing to stake out the necessary field positions, particularly in the last quarter when matters became urgent. Italy had to rejig their back division when Manuel Dallan went off with a twisted knee, and the subsequent loss of the No 8 Sergio Parisse, who did a particularly painful version of the splits, was another hindrance. But De Marigny's left boot kept on planting the ball where Scotland least wanted it, including a fourth and fifth penalty, and Webster's last-ditch try came far too late.
"The first half was just tactics," De Rossi said afterwards. "In the second half we told each other we had to give everything to bring this victory home." As the Italians gained in confidence, so the crowd caught the mood. The national anthem rang round the Stadio Flaminio, finished off with a rousing "Si!" - as in "Yes, we're going to win again".
Pens: De Marigny 5
Pens: Paterson 3
Half-time: 9-9 Attendance: 21,340
Italy: G Canale (Treviso); N Mazzucato (Calvisano), C Stoica (Montpellier), M Dallan (Treviso), D Dallan (Treviso); R de Marigny (Overmach Parma), P Griffen (Calvisano); A Lo Cicero (Lazio), F Ongaro (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano), S Dellape (Treviso), M Bortolami (Padova), A de Rossi (Calvisano, capt), S Parisse (Treviso), A Persico (Leeds). Replacements: R Wakarua (Brescia) for M Dallan 47; S Orlando (Treviso) for Parisse, 61; C Festuccia (Gran Parma) for Ongaro, 74; M Bergamasco (Stade Français) for Canale, 74.
Scotland: B Hinshelwood (Worcester); S Danielli (Bath), T Philip (Edinburgh), B Laney (Edinburgh), S Webster (Edinburgh); C Paterson (Edinburgh, capt), C Cusiter (Borders); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), G Bulloch (Glasgow), B Douglas (Borders), S Murray (Edinburgh), S Grimes (Newcastle), J White (Sale), S Taylor (Edinburgh), A Hogg (Edinburgh). Replacements: M Blair (Edinburgh) for Cusiter, 40; G Kerr (Leeds) for Jacobsen 40; Jacobsen for Douglas, 65; N Hines (Edinburgh) for Grimes, 65; D Lee (Edinburgh) for Danielli, 74; J Petrie (Glasgow) for J White, 78; A Henderson (Glasgow) for Laney, 78.
Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales),