With 106 Test appearances to his name, including one for the British and Irish Lions eight years ago, Ross Ford is the most experienced member of this Scotland squad by a margin. At 32 years old he is also the “daddy” of the team, an oldie in a kindergarten class.
The veteran hooker is also the only change to the side that flopped so badly last time out. So, was Ford promoted to help stabilise the set scrum or was Fraser Brown demoted to the substitutes bench for that rush of blood to the head in the opening minute of the match?
“He [coach Vern Cotter] just said, ‘Fordy you are in, Fras you can have a go at them near the end’. That was it. Just you are in, go for it.”
Ford has played second fiddle to Brown for much of the season and he bristled a little at the suggestion that he was “happy” to sit on the bench. Obviously the veteran hasn’t heard of Eddie Jones’ “finishers” because he much prefers to be a starter even if he knows it can’t always happen, especially for someone with a good few miles on the clock.
The hooker was first capped by Matt Williams way back in November 2004 and he has played under five national coaches in all. Asking players about their coach is usually a waste of breath, no one bites the hand that feeds, but Cotter had selected his last Scotland team before moving to France so perhaps we can treat Ford’s valediction with a little less scepticism than usual.
“The way the team are playing and the results we’re getting show how massive his impact has been,” says Ford.
“What he asks of the players, the work ethic he instils in players, the way he carries himself, he’s been a huge influence on all of us.
“I have a massive respect for Vern but he’s made it clear it’s not about him, it’s about the game. The boys understand that we’ve got to get things right. He is a great man and he has definitely been a very good coach for us. He’s made me look at the way I play, help me improve, he’s a very good coach, massive respect for the man.”
Ford’s massive experience will come in handy come Saturday as anyone who witnessed the corresponding fixture two years ago will remember. Scotland subbed a few key players and Italy grabbed two late tries through their driving maul to seal a famous win and condemn the hosts and their new Kiwi coach to a championship whitewash.
Was he on the pitch when the meltdown took place, Ford was asked? “No, I was in the changing room having a back spasm.”
Did he witness the drama unfolding? “I watched it on the TV screens inside.”
Was that some sort of low point in his long career? “Aye, yes, definitely. Especially with a home crowd there. It was a big disappointment.”
Forewarned is forearmed and Scotland should have enough about them to ensure a third Six Nations win for only the second time in the short history of the competition. Second place in the table beckons even if the Scots need results to go their way elsewhere to reach what would be a new high in the Six Nations championship.
The problem is that Italy will travel to Murrayfield believing that they can win, because they always do.
The Scots hold no fear for them but, while Italy coach Conor O’Shea has attempted to add another string to their bow, the twin loss of Michele Campagnaro and Glasgow’s Leonardo Sarto have stripped Italy of their two most potent weapons in attack.
Instead, the traditional Azzurri strengths of scrum and maul will be taken off the shelf and dusted down for use in tomorrow’s battle.
Scotland’s veteran hooker knows this all too well because Ford has lined up against the Italians on 11 occasions, winning seven and losing four.
After Ford’s first six matches against the Azzurri, it is worth pointing out, the running score stood at 3-3 and it is only in more recent years that Scotland have edged away from their traditional wooden spoon rivals, who still pose a genuine threat.
“They are confrontational, they like to disrupt games,” says the man who should know. “You have to be very disciplined with them. You can’t give them easy access into the game by giving them penalties. Then they get their scrum and maul going and if they get a sniff they are always there or thereabouts so you have to be disciplined and break them down.
“And be aware that it will take time to break them down. I think in this championship they have been leading or within a score at half-time so it does take time to break them down. They have developed the way they are trying to play. The overriding thing is being patient and being disciplined with the ball and even more [disciplined] without it.”
He might not put it quite this way but Scotland face a tactical conundrum. To beat Italy and get the bonus point, Scotland need to play fast and a little loose. But, if they do so too early, before pulling and prodding the visitors’ defence out of shape, they will get picked off in the backs and possibly offer up a cheap interception try. Just ask Chris Cusiter who is still having dry sweats on that score.
“If you are not concentrating and try to play too much too early it does come back and bite you at times so you have to know what it takes,” says Ford, Scotland’s most experienced player. “As I say, patience and discipline, because these things can happen.”
Patience and discipline. It is just a pity that Ford didn’t start the last match.