A NEW attacking threat, a determined squad that has beaten itself up after a poor start to the 2013 RBS Six Nations Championship, straight-talking coaches demanding improvement and a new anthem are the tools Scotland hopes will today begin the process of turning around a listing ship.
But there are genuine fears as Italy arrive at Murrayfield, the memory of victory here six years ago still vivid for their skipper Sergio Parisse, the ton-up prop Andrea Lo Cicero and a handful of others quick to remind the rest that this is the most likely place to garner a second away win in the tournament. They come floating on the high of a win over France, though they did that two years ago, too, and succumbed 21-8.
However, under French coach Jacques Brunel the Italians are better now. Their attack is slicker, with more off-loading between players and passing wider out, using their pack not as the whole of their game-plan, the backs to be resorted to only when everything else fails, but, as every other side does, the starting point.
However, according to Scotland’s new forwards coach there is one exception to those teams who see the game so simply and understand how to control a Test match – Scotland. Dean Ryan is renowned both for his simplicity of approach and his tactical mastery, which is why Sky TV pay him big cheques to study matches and why, no matter how this Scottish side perform in the next few weeks, he will not change his mind about heading back to the TV studios at the Six Nations end. In case there ever were any doubts, his wife and 16-month-old daughter arrived in Edinburgh this week to keep him company.
But, in the short period he is here, Ryan could leave a far-reaching legacy if his words on the eve of the Six Nations clash with Italy are anything to go by. Clear and precise, Ryan explained where he feels Scottish rugby has been falling down over the past decade, and where change must begin today if dreams of being a consistent challenger on the international stage are to reach fruition.
We all witnessed Scotland’s failings at Twickenham last week, and have all debated how an improvement in skills, intelligence and courage might be effected inside a week to outsmart an Italian team bursting with belief.
Ryan has been watching Scotland from afar for years and, in his typically unassuming, down-to-earth, analytical manner, he revealed thoughts about the country’s approach at the top level that rings true. “This Scottish team needs to engage with the fundamentals of any game, which is about winning the gain-line battle,” he began.
“There were times last week when we could be bumped from the halfway line over the try-line. That’s unacceptable in Test match rugby and, as a squad, we have to learn that that is the first thing we have to solve before tactics and the enterprise, of which there was plenty.
“If we can do that, we can start to point in the right direction, because the things that were positive last week came off the back of it. There is almost like a tape we have to go through and, when we get through that tape, by engaging in the fundamentals, then some of our ability will be illustrated off the back.
“But for too long we’ve tried to get to those bits out the side door and, when we’ve been successful, weather has been a contributory factor. We’ve got to be able to do that, and it starts against Italy, and if anyone was peddling the perception that they were an emerging side they will have got a shock last week, but I don’t think we did.”
Ryan was not interested in talking about what had to be different for the challenge of the Italians this afternoon, because, for him, there is no difference to last week, or for next week. Scotland, he stated, are vulnerable to every single team they play against until they correct the fundamentals. Not only that, even recent victories owed much to factors outwith their control.
“We’ve got to stop peddling some illusion that there’s a different way of playing Test rugby. There isn’t. Yes, tactically, there are many ways of playing Test match rugby and of tailoring a game-plan to suit the talent in your side, but the fundamentals of the game are still there and, until we get good at them, engage them and make them a priority, everyone who comes around the corner has the potential to cause us a problem. We have to change that dynamic.
“Is there a game where Scotland have controlled the opposition in terms of what they have done? I think we can control them as in run the ball everywhere and play at a high tempo, but that hasn’t proved to be successful.
“That’s what we’ve got to start looking at. I’m pretty simplistic. The simple things of the game come first and then, tactically, the adaptation of what you want to do come second. Have Scotland taken that approach in the past? From an analytical point of view, I don’t think they have. They have tried to maximise their areas of strength and tried to avoid their areas of weakness, which is what everybody does, but we’ve come so far away from it that it’s becoming an issue. We now need to go back and engage with it.
“Both Johnno and myself are giving the same message: ‘stop fooling ourselves that there’s a tactical five-man lineout or back line play that’s going to win us Test matches. It’s not. What’s going to win us Test matches is engaging with the gain-line battle’.”
That may not be the positive, up-and-at-em sort of talk you hoped to read over the breakfast cereal, thoughts of how the stirring anthem Highland Cathedral joining O Flower of Scotland might stir the Murrayfield factor later.
But it is what Scottish rugby needs to hear more of, to paraphrase Burns, and ‘see ourselves as ithers see us’. And to see Ryan as a doomsayer ahead of the year’s first Murrayfield international is well wide of the mark.
He is certainly not downhearted. He admitted to loving being back among players, after four years since he quit Gloucester, and believing Scottish players had terrific strengths. The former England back row is also confident that the message will have an energising effect on Scottish players preparing to run out at Murrayfield for the first time since losing to the twin towers of world rugby in New Zealand and South Africa in November, largely because it gives the players something clear to grasp as they seek an end to the run of four defeats. “I am pretty confident because I don’t see it as the most difficult area of the game,” he said. “That’s because I found it quite easy and some of the more skilful bits I found pretty hard.
“I’m confident that if people prioritise it they can be better at it.
“We saw the ability of [Stuart] Hogg, [Sean] Maitland and [Tim] Visser, but that cannot be our primary focus; it has to be our secondary focus off the back of good engagement.
“I don’t think that, recently, it’s an area of the game we’ve excelled in and I don’t think victories we’ve had have come from us doing that. Weather has contributed. The Australia victory was a fantastic victory, but it wasn’t us dictating the pace of the game, but weather.
“Now we know that if we can get that pace of the game under our control, then we become quite a good side. I’ve no doubts that if we can get through this veil of engaging with the key areas, in fact I’d say we’re a very good side. But it’s a long way from where we are at the moment, and it won’t be easy on the weekend, or the week after or the week after that.”
Intriguingly, this Scotland team relies heavily on Glasgow, while Italy are full of Treviso players. Ryan believes, in the Scottish context, that the team selection reveals Glasgow’s greater ability to improve the fundamentals he speaks of, and pointed to how England are building a successful team around players schooled in the basics by Leicester, Harlequins and Saracens. But he was quick to dismiss was any suggestion that Scottish players lack the effort or attitude of their Six Nations rivals.
“There’s a great amount of endeavour and this is a fantastic side to coach, because they are desperate to improve and get better. I think it’s re-aligning where that energy goes, and, yes, it is a little bit of attitude, but in the right area.
“We have great students who are desperate to improve technically and there are some wonderful rugby players whose technique is awful. So we have to get that balance right.”
Italy have developed around a strong foundation, a pack as strong and aggressive as any in the world and, as Scottish supporters will see today, have begun to develop their attack with South Africa-born scrum-half Tobias Botes blending well with Luciano Orquera, and the 31-year-old from Argentina with experienced figures Gonzalo Canale (who returns at inside centre) and Andrea Masi (full-back) further out.
They can play and they know it and, with a greater team confidence, they no longer let the heads drop when the game goes against them and cough up needless penalties. Scotland will need to play, and play well, for the full match to gain revenge for last year’s miserable fall in Rome. “I’ll be desperately disappointed if we don’t get the response on Saturday,” added Ryan. “I’m not saying that’s going to be the all-singing solution, but I want a response because then I know what I’m dealing with.
“If I don’t get a response we’re dealing with a different thing, and will have to look at slightly different things.
“Players have to respond now. This is the national team, you’re representing your country, you’re at home and, given that we had our arse kicked last week and it’s been the topic of conversation all week, I’ll be pretty disappointed if we don’t get a response.”