SCOTLAND have started badly against both France and Wales, giving away a soft three-points penalty within a couple of minutes of the kick-off. “Merci beaucoup,” said Camille Lopez; “thanks a lot”, said Leigh Halfpenny. And so we were behind and on the back foot before late-comers had settled in their seats.
Admittedly, these starts weren’t anything like as bad as when Italy came to Murrayfield eight years ago. That afternoon, determined to impose ourselves on the match from the kick-off, we made a series of dreadful errors and found ourselves 21-0 down in no time at all. We then compounded these errors by declining to take kicks at goal, and, instead, putting the ball into touch in an attempt to score tries. The truth is, of course, that the odds are against doing so, even if your lineout is only five metres from the try-line.
There are so many things than can go wrong, and very often they do. I reckon the odds are 5-1 against unless you have a massive physical superiority up front. “Take the points, get the scoreboard moving in your favour”; this is old advice, and good advice.
One has grown tired – we have all grown tired – of seeing the Scotland- Italy match billed as the Wooden Spoon decider, and of hearing that the Italians target the Scotland match as their best chance of avoiding a whitewash. I daresay the Italians themselves are equally fed-up. But that’s how it has been most seasons since the Five Nations became Six.
The reason is not hard to seek. Scotland and Italy have regularly fielded a number of players, three, four or five, who, while decent enough performers, wouldn’t have played international rugby if they had been Irish or Welsh. If you think this a harsh judgment, then consider our meagre representation in Lions touring parties since 1997.
If we have more reason to be optimistic today, this is partly because there are far fewer members of today’s team who are in there merely for lack of anyone better. If there was a Lions tour this summer, there might be six or seven Scots in the party. Moreover, ten of the starting XV play for Glasgow, who sit at the top of the Guinness Pro12. In contrast, Italy have six from Zebre and five from Benetton Treviso, the two Italian clubs which languish at the bottom of the league table. Admittedly, Peter Horne is probably our fourth choice stand-off behind the suspended Finn Russell and the injured Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson, and more accustomed to being at 12 than at 10, but he has been playing very well and, two weeks ago, cut the Zebre defence to ribbons.
Italy will undoubtedly be tough and hard up-front. They always are, and may indeed have an advantage in the set scrum. Given the probability that every second scrum at least will yield a penalty, this could be bad news.
Then they have one indisputably great player in their indomitable captain, Sergio Parisse, the best No 8 in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, though they lost heavily at Twickenham, they did score three tries there, their young centre Morisi making the English midfield defence look decidedly fragile. On the other hand they conceded six, to follow the two Ireland scored against them in Rome.
This developing Scottish side has the ability to win, and even to do so handsomely. But they had both the ability and the opportunity to beat Wales a fortnight ago, and failed to do so. This was partly because they conceded too many penalties in their own half, partly, perhaps, because they played too much rugby there instead of trying to control territory.
But the principal reason was that too many poor decisions were made in the Welsh 22, Scotland being stricken yet again by the well-named White Line Fever. Given the quality of our three-quarters now, one hopes that, in like situations today, they will be trusted to finish the job.
For too long one has counted the tries scored by our back division and found the total falling depressingly short of the tally on the other side of the field.
But now things are changing. Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Alex Dunbar all enjoy a good ratio of tries to appearances. Mark Bennett hasn’t yet got off the zero mark (though he would have done so if referee Glen Jackson had consulted the TMO a fortnight ago), but he has shown his ability in both the Pro12 and the European Champions Cup to cut open, or dance through, the best defences.
It is important that we not only win today, but win well. If we do so, then we can approach even Twickenham with more justified optimism than usual. So what’s needed? Start well, don’t give away soft penalties, keep the heid, play the percentages, take points on offer, think clearly and trust the backs.
This Scottish team is capable of playing faster than the Italians and of outlasting them too. They are already in the unusual position of not having been on the wrong side of the try-score in their first two matches.
Today, they have the opportunity to make the for-and-against try score look even healthier. They will win, unless they contrive to beat themselves – as they did eight years ago, the only time Italy have come to Murrayfield and gone away happy.