THE good news is that Scotland performed with some distinction in losing their opening two matches. The bad news is that they remain winless and pointless and it is a tough ask for Vern Cotter’s squad to squeeze much change out of England at Twickenham or the Irish on the final weekend at Murrayfield. If the Kiwi coach wants a Six Nations win, Saturday’s game against Italy at BT Murrayfield is probably the time to grab it.
The Azzurri finished a distant second to both Ireland and England, but they were trailing Ireland by just six points after 55 minutes and they scored three tries against England, which not many teams can claim. Saturday’s match is likely to be a close-run affair, if only because Scotland are the one team Italy always believe they can beat.
“It is just the physical battle,” says Alex Dunbar when asked what is coming over the horizon. “They are a hugely passionate nation and they will come out with all guns blazing early on. They have a good set-piece so they will try to get their forwards into the game a lot, try to dominate there and put us under a lot of pressure. Early on, we need to play smart in the right areas.
“We need to play the right kind of balls because we don’t want to get dragged down into a set-piece game. It is up to us as a whole team to try to create quick ball and have a go.
“We know that we can’t realistically expect to break sides down in the first phase every time. We have to go through the phases. It is all about creating quick ball. If we can get that and go through four or five phases, then the gaps will be there. That’s when it is far easier for the backs to identify the mismatches and the spaces and hit the good lines and create chances.”
Dunbar has quickly become a key performer for this squad. As an inside centre playing with Mark Bennett, he is a brick wall in defence and his work at the breakdown is required viewing for any aspiring flanker. Yet Dunbar still has the pace to run at 13 outside Matt Scott if needs be, something he proved beyond reasonable doubt last year when scoring the first of his two tries in Rome.
Dunbar’s brace was overshadowed by the drama of Duncan Weir’s last-gasp drop goal but that would have counted for nothing without the centre’s pacy intervention. The GPS device tracking the Scottish midfielder clocked his speed at 33.8kph (or 21mph in old money) during his first try, which is the fastest speed any Scotland player has clocked.
“I’ve never been naturally gifted at running,” is Dunbar’s modest response, although he does confess to plenty of hard work with conditioning coach Huw Jones at Glasgow where the drills tend to emphasise the first 10-30 metres, which is about as far as any midfielder is asked to run given the crowded nature of the modern rugby pitch and maybe just as well.
“Once I get past 40 metres the parachute comes out and I get a bit slower,” insists the centre, against all available evidence.
The Glasgow midfield duo of Dunbar and Bennett have probably done enough in the opening two matches to ensure that they get another outing against Italy where the danger man seems to be in the 13 channel, whoever fills the shirt. Last season Michele Campagnaro scored a brilliant brace against Wales and last weekend his replacement, Luca Morisi, did the same at Twickenham.
“I think I’ve played him once before,” says Dunbar on Morisi. “He’s obviously a very physical runner, likes to get the ball in his hands and have a go, so we’ll go back into camp and have a real look at their team, but we know how much of a challenge it’s going to be. We know they’re going to come and put us under a lot of pressure, so defensively we’re going to have to be switched on.”
Elsewhere, Vern Cotter must find a replacement for the injured Richie Gray, with Jim Hamilton the obvious alternative. Ben Toolis is the left-field choice and the decision to pull him at half-time in Edinburgh’s game on Friday night suggests he will be involved in the match-day squad in some capacity.
In the front row, Cotter has a straight choice between Euan Murray and Geoff Cross, with the latter doing well against Wales and having the added selling point of being available 24/7 rather than 24/6 like Murray. At stand-off, Greig Tonks looks the likely replacement for Finn Russell (presuming his appeal against a two-week ban fails) and Tommy Seymour will hopefully be fit enough to fill a wing slot.
Scotland face several dangers on Saturday, but one of them must be a failure of focus after so much effort in the opening rounds resulted in no tangible reward. Italy raise their game for Scotland and Cotter will be emphasising that all his team’s progress in performance will be worthless unless they put a stuffy Italian side away.
“I think we’ve realised very quickly it is small margins, it’s down to one or two small mistakes that are really costing us badly,” says Dunbar of the team’s efforts to date. “If we can iron that out we can get winning, get back on the right foot. The boys are all really frustrated, it’s never easy losing so we really want to come back in this week building positives from the game but really ironing out those mistakes and working on the breakdown and little areas we can improve and have a go at Italy.”
Thankfully he doesn’t blame referee Glen Jackson for Scotland’s loss last week but with erratic Irish whistler George Clancy officiating in the Italian match, Scotland’s players must take the referee right out of the equation with a display of all-round excellence.
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