Blair Kinghorn rose to the challenge of replacing Finn Russell at stand-off as he scored a hat-trick of tries to help Scotland end their Guinness Six Nations campaign with a bonus-point 26-14 victory over spirited Italy.
It was also a good day for former Ireland under-20 back Ben Healy who was a second-half replacement for the hosts.
Versatile Edinburgh back Kinghorn went over the line either side of half-time to add to an earlier touchdown by Duhan Van Der Merwe. And he then completed the scoring in the last moment of a hard-fought game as the Scots fended off an Azzurri fightback to ensure they ended the championship with three wins out of five for the first time since 2018.
Italy had a chance to get the scoreboard ticking when they awarded a penalty on the 10-metre line in the fourth minute but Tommaso Allan – who was born in Scotland – saw his kick drift just left of the posts.
Four minutes later, however, Allan got the Azzurri off the mark when he kicked a penalty from the 22.
The Scots sparked into life in the 13th minute when Van Der Merwe received an offload from Huw Jones wide on the left and did superbly to ride the challenge of Paolo Garbisi and plant the ball down just inside the touchline. Kinghorn was wide with his conversion attempt.
Sublime finish from Duhan van der Merwe for Scotland. Touch of the James Lowes to that one— RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) March 18, 2023
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📺Watch Scotland v Italy https://t.co/mQ6SwzbNla pic.twitter.com/BpbUbfdGjn
The Italians managed to get their noses back in front three minutes later when Allan scored another penalty.
The visitors were forced into a change in the 23rd minute when Edoardo Iachizzi went off injured and was replaced by Niccolo Cannone.
Six minutes later, they suffered a further blow when prop Danilo Fischetti was shown a yellow card for repeated scrum infringements by the Italian front row. Winger Simone Gesi was temporarily sacrificed as Pietro Ceccarelli was introduced from the bench to reinforce the front row.
Scotland made the extra man count within a matter of seconds as Ben White took the ball from the base of the scrum, carried forward and played in Kinghorn, who spotted a gap and dived over. The number 10 duly converted his own try.
The hosts continued on the front foot early in the second half and Kinghorn got himself a second try just four minutes after the restart following another assist by White. The try-scorer again added the extras.
Just as Scotland looked in full control, however, Italy got themselves back in the match when Allan bounded over for a well-executed try on the left. The try-scorer missed then missed the chance to bring the Azzurri within a converted try of victory when he fluffed his conversion attempt.
But four minutes later, team-mate Garbisi took over kicking duties and sent a penalty soaring between the posts from just outside the 10-metre line to reduce the deficit to just five points.
Italy piled on the pressure in the closing stages and looked like they might be about to force a victory before Scotland broke away in the last action of the match, with Kinghorn racing gleefully behind the posts after being handed a clear run by Van Der Merwe. The number 10 capped a memorable afternoon for himself with a close-range conversion.
Townsend was non-committal on whether this would be his final Six Nations match with the side as the Rugby World Cup in France looms large this year and could herald the start of a new four-year cycle for the team under different leadership.
"We'll see. We're going to have to come to a decision – I'd imagine there'll be one at some point over the next few weeks.
"I love days like today, even in the bad moments when you're under pressure, to be involved with your national team – there's nothing better.
"My focus has just been on the coaching in the last few weeks. I need some time to reflect and see what's going to happen after that."
Scotland have set themselves up for a third-place finish this year, barring a big bonus-point win for England in Ireland later on Saturday.
"It's been an eventful Six Nations," Townsend said. "France was a really encouraging performance, the last two weeks maybe weren't as good overall.
"You get that in sport, and we're just glad we finished with a win."