THERE has been one question/statement posed to me more than any other on a trip home to Scotland this week: ‘You must be glad to be out of this?”
Am I? Not a chance. I share in the disappointment of every fan and there is little doubt that a 22-point defeat and 20-point defeat leads everyone but the most ardent of supporters to wonder not if the team will win in Italy but rather to hope that they don’t lose by too much.
Scathing media reports, outspoken ex-internationalists, of which, by definition, I am one, and the long-suffering Scottish rugby fans demanding their pound of flesh has left no hiding place for Scottish players or management in the last two weeks and much of the criticism has been deserved. The performance versus England was wholly unacceptable. So, do I thank my lucky stars that I’m not a member of this squad? Honestly, no. I hated losing, and it hurts more when representing your country than at any other time, but I also loved the challenge of bouncing back and sticking one to the critics who write your career off, and there have been a few of those ‘obits’ in the past week or so.
One thing I did learn in my Test career was that even the very best players in the world have felt the pain of losing, and made costly mistakes in games. For us, obviously, it doesn’t get worse than losing to the Auld Enemy. I experienced that and no matter how strong they may be, how much they are favourites, defeat is always excruciating.
The reality is that every Scottish player who played in the Murrayfield quagmire would have wanted to crawl into a hole on that Saturday night and then come bursting out of it at daybreak to replay the game the next day.
But you don’t get that chance. Instead, you watch the game in minute detail again, again and again, with the occasional break for harsh words from coaches, other players and yourself in the mirror; what the public don’t see. You learn to put on a face, a false confidence, when meeting supporters, speaking to people who pop into the hotel and when facing the media – often the last thing you want to do, but are contracted to.
‘Be polite, answer questions, admit errors, but talk up the positives, the confidence’. And then you go back into private and the head spins again, asking yourself, ‘How could I have played so badly in the last game?’ and ‘How can I change that now?’ and ‘have we got the right gameplan?’
That’s the challenge that comes with the honour of representing Scotland. There is no magic solution. It’s about learning from those mistakes, reinstating discipline and coming out fighting this afternoon against Italy.
Nobody would have predicted six months ago that behemoth British Lion Richie Gray could be left out of the starting XV, but, now back, he adds an extra five inches (6ft 9in) to the lineout and 10kgs (126kgs) to the scrum, which could be key to conquering the massive set-piece battles.
Scott Lawson is very strong for his size, throws accurate arrows, hooks at scrums and is mobile around the park and while I welcome his selection, having watched more lineout practises than I care to remember, I feel for Ross Ford when I see the criticism all thrown his way when, at times, it has been the wrong call, inaccurate movement or poorly executed jumps.
Johnnie Beattie, the third newcomer today, is a phenomenal athlete and a clever footballer who has really developed since his move to Montpellier. He has a huge battle coming against Azzurri talisman Sergio Parisse but Beattie is a player who lives for that. I also expect the dropped men, Ross Ford and Dave Denton, to play key roles in this game from the bench.
Having spoken to a few of the squad, there is a palpable desire to atone for the first two games and show the fans how seriously they take the honour they have been given with – appropriately given the venue – a true gladiatorial approach.
There is inevitably a lot of talk of details, moves, game-plans, execution etc, but, from experience, the way to unearth a quality performance is to go out there and soak up the atmosphere, enjoy it, and play the good quality of rugby that you know you can. That is the difference when you are winning and confident; you do that instinctively.
Of course, it needs technical quality. Dean Ryan, who was coaching Scotland during last during last year’s tournament and was in charge during my six years at a Gloucester, speaks about a ‘pyramid’ where the scrum, lineout, kick-offs and defence formed the bottom, foundation tier and controlled your game.
The middle tier was made up of the breakdown – an ability to control it with and without the ball – attacking structure and exit strategy. Finally, the top tier was the ‘X-factor’ game. We can talk about the latter two on Monday, but only if the foundation is finally laid.
I am not preparing for today’s game with trepidation though. I can envisage a Scottish win, because I know how this squad can play when they get their jobs right.
I have not spoken of Italy and that should not be taken as a lack respect towards them. They are a formidable team, we know that, but, for me, it’s not about Italy. Today is about 23 players wearing the thistle being able to walk off the Stadio Olimpico this afternoon knowing that they have done themselves justice.
I wish I still had that opportunity.