LET’s be thankful for small mercies. Scotland’s 17-0 win over Italy on Saturday was not the sort of scintillating display likely to strike fear into our remaining opponents in this year’s Six Nations. But it was a win, and after two defeats that has to represent progress, however modest.

Since the Championship was expanded in 2000, the Italian match has frequently come to define Scotland’s season. We may not like that fact, we may rightly aspire to greater things, yet it is the reality.

Beating Italy and losing to the four other teams, as has happened more than once over the past couple of decades, is a far from satisfactory state of affairs. But it is better than losing to all five.

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It should also be noted that some of Scotland’s wins in Rome have been barely deserved last-gasp affairs. Two years ago the score was 29-27 to the visitors. Six years ago it was 21-20. So 17-0 is not to be sneezed at, even if this Italian side does not pose quite the threat that some of its predecessors did.

Scotland had to defend for large tranches of the match, and the nil part of the equation testifies to just how well they defended. At 10-0 going into the final couple of minutes, rather than conceding a late score when under sustained pressure, the visitors added a third try of their own when Adam Hastings trotted in down the blindside. It was a phase of play which showed patience, resilience and alertness, and testified to the squad’s stamina and discipline.

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An hour or so of playing time earlier, captain Stuart Hogg got the scoreboard moving with a well-crafted solo try, cradling the ball in both arms as he touched down to ensure no repeat of his inexplicable handling error in Ireland. And between that score and Hastings’, Chris Harris also crossed to dampen Italian hopes of a fightback.

Besides the three tries, the highlight of the game was surely the performance of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson. The two back-row men combined to excellent effect in defence, strangling the life out of some Italian attacks. The sophistication of the systems employed means that, to be truly effective, defence has to be a 15-man affair, but the Edinburgh pair were surely joint first among equals.

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Defending against the more dynamic and inventive French attack will be a lot more demanding, of course, mentally and physically, yet there is no doubt that after the problems at the World Cup, Scotland have improved that department of their game significantly under new assistant coach Steve Tandy. So we can look ahead to the France game with a measure of optimism.

On a cautionary note, however, let’s hope that over the coming fortnight no-one anywhere near the Scotland camp trots out that tired old stereotype that says the French do not travel well. Their ominously accomplished victory in the Millennium Stadium, which keeps them on course for the Grand Slam, was proof of just how outmoded that presumption is.