SCOTLAND are fitter than Italy and will therefore have the edge if Saturday’s game in Rome is in the balance going into its closing stages, according to Greig Laidlaw.
The captain knows that the first battle in Rome will be to achieve something like parity up front against a home pack who will fancy their chances of exploiting the weaknesses shown by Scotland in their opening two defeats. Provided that can be done, he is confident that physical superiority can help his team to emerge victorious.
The last four games between the teams in the Olympic Stadium have all been close affairs, won by seven points or fewer. The last meeting anywhere was even closer – the 30-29 win for the Scots last summer in the South African Quadrangular Tournament, when the difference between the sides was Laidlaw’s conversion of Alasdair Strokosch’s last-minute try .
Laidlaw explained yesterday that the squad have not specially examined that match as a guide to how they can win at the weekend. But if, as history suggests, this game will also come down to a single score late in the game, he has confidence in his team’s ability to ensure it is they who score it.
“We’ve not talked specifically about that one,” he said. “It was a tough game, like most of the Italian games are. We came out on top, and we understand we might need to play for 80 minutes, like we did in the summer, to get the positive result which the boys are capable of. We’re a fit team. Arguably I think we’re fitter than the Italians. So, if it comes to that on the day, I think we’ll be in a good position.
“The forward battle is key. Italy base themselves around their forwards, so we need to gain parity there, and better them where we can. With the pack that’s been picked I think we can do that. That’s probably a good starting point for us.
“Italy are a pretty solid team. Their forwards are a good side. It’s sometimes difficult to get into the game if they earn cheap penalties. So we need to be wary of our discipline, not to give them cheap penalties or field position. In the past we maybe fell into that trap. Once they knock over a couple of penalties or get a cheap try somewhere along the way, they become hard to peg back.”
Italy ran Wales close in their last match, going down 23-15 in what was a significant improvement on their earlier 20-point defeat by France. Both those matches were on the road, and they will be confident of turning promise into achievement in their first match of the year on home soil. By the same token, if Scotland can get a win in Rome, they will then be able to welcome France to Murrayfield a fortnight later in a fairly confident frame of mind.
“In terms of the Six Nations it’s absolutely massive for us to win this weekend,” Laidlaw continued. “If we can win this game, we’ve got France here a couple of weeks after that – that’s a game I believe we can win also.
“But we’re not looking past the Italians. Scotland haven’t won there since 2006, so it’s going to be a tough game. But if we can win that big game, come back here, play against France, get a result there – then we’re starting to look up.”
Laidlaw himself has only played once against Italy in Rome, and he lost that one. He was at 10 that time, outside Mike Blair; now he is the one in the No 9 jersey, hoping to develop an understanding with stand-off Duncan Weir.
“The first two games have been tough for us because we’ve been on the back foot,” he explained. “Dunc had a tough time last week but he’ll come again. He’s settling into that role, he’s trained well this week, which has been good for him. And the team has trained well this week, which I think is very important.
“If you’re on the back foot and you’re a ten, and all the traffic is coming through your channel, sometimes it can turn into a lonely place. So it’s very important for your back row and your nine to help out the ten as much as they can.”
There must have been times in the past week and a half when every member of the Scotland squad has felt in a lonely place, such was the humiliating effect of the 20-0 defeat by England. The crucial thing in camp, above all for head coach Scott Johnson, must have been to decide when self-criticism had gone far enough, and when it was time to start to build up the players’ confidence.
“It’s not been easy,” Laidlaw said when asked about those past ten days or so. “I’ve been very upset with the way things panned out in the England game.
“Tough to take, but it’s happened now, so we need to make sure we learn from it individually and collectively. We’re fixed on putting in a big performance this weekend to get our Six Nations back on track.
“Unfortunately it’s gone now, so we need to park it, learn from it and move on, and focus all our energy on this weekend and the last three games of the tournament.”
Of course, the only way for Laidlaw and his team-mates to totally park the England game, and to prove they have learned from it and can move on, is to win on Saturday.
“Quite clearly,” he agreed. “That’s what we’re focused on 100 per cent.”
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