The Scots escape with a last-gasp victory.
Stunned Italy coach Jacques Brunel is hoping for a reaction from the Azzurri after Scotland snatched a 21-20 victory in Rome to inflict their hosts third consecutive Six Nations defeat on Saturday.
Italy, who held a 13-3 half-time lead thanks in large part to fly-half Tommaso Allan, replied to a thrilling Scotland fightback in the second half to claim a two-point lead with 13 minutes remaining.
However the hosts were stunned at the death when fly-half Duncan Weir finished off a solid Scotland move from the scrum to send a drop goal between the posts for a win that has left Italy staring at the dreaded wooden spoon.
After the third round of games, Italy, who in 2013 recorded victories over France and Ireland to finish fourth, now sit two points behind Scotland.
Brunel’s side had produced convincing performances in spite of consecutive defeats in Wales (23-15) and France (30-10), but in front of a largely partisan crowd of 66,271 spectators the Azzurri were largely unconvincing.
“We’ve taken a step backwards in terms of how we played in our two previous games,” lamented Brunel.
“The quality of our game throughout was poor. At times we were strong in defence but we had far too many handling errors and lacked efficiency at the line-outs.
“Apart from the defence, we failed in most other departments.”
Italy will next play Ireland, away, before welcoming England for a crunch final match at the Olympic Stadium on March 15.
Brunel hinted that he expects a reaction in those games, adding: “We’ll see in good time how we’re going to approach those games.
“For now we have to analyse what went wrong against the Scots. Our whole mission has been pushed back a step and we need to look at why and then try to see how we react.”
Scotland, who shipped 50 points in their two previous games against Ireland and England, looked to be heading for a third straight defeat when they trailed in for the half-time break 13-3 down due mainly to incisive fly-half Allan.
However they emerged fired up after the interval and came fighting back to lead the Italians 18-13 with just over 10 minutes to play.
Joshua Furno set Scottish nerves jangling when his try pulled Italy level only minutes later with Luciano Orquera converting to give Italy a 20-18 lead and set up a thrilling finish.
But when the ball found its way to Weir following a scrum won by the visitors, the fly-half took his chance from 30 metres to silence large parts of the stadium and send the travelling Tartan Army support into raptures.
“I had plenty of doubts he would do it,” quipped Johnson, who suffered massacre by media following a 20-0 rout by England at Murrayfield a fortnight ago.
“I’ve watched him for the last three weeks and he never looked like kicking one. But I was delighted for him, delighted. It’s a position that carries a lot of responsibility.”
This month’s 20-0 Calcutta Cup loss at Murrayfield was a particular low, representing the first time since 1978 that Scotland had failed to score a point in a match against arch-rivals England.
Although Saturday’s game was often scrappy, Johnson saw enough to believe his young crop of players could cause a surprise against France.
“The criticism last week was deserved, we didn’t play well,” he said.
“We showed character though. We said that if we got set piece and get a bit of the ball, we could play a bit of rugby. In the first half we had a lot of penalties against us but this team’s got great character.
“We just need to execute a bit better a little more often.”
Johnson said he won’t allow his side to get carried away but added: “It’s certainly better than a loss, for a boost.
“But just as we can’t get carried away with a win that could easily have gone the other way, we’re going to work on the things we need to improve on.
“We have to learn to play and compete consistently. We got one (win) today. I thought we were the better team, but that won’t mean a lot if we don’t show a lot at home against the French.”