Allan Massie: Success at breakdown can give us a winning start to home run

MANY neutrals – and not a few Scots – may have Italy as favourites today after their stunning defeat of France last Sunday.

In that match they looked not only well-organised but ambitious. They played a more expansive game than we have been accustomed to see from them and played it decidedly well. So they come to Murrayfield having won their last two games in the Six Nations, the previous one being, of course, against us at the end of last season. In contrast, we have lost our last four internationals. On the face of it, the form-book favours Italy.

On the other hand, Italy have rarely played anything like as well away from home as they now regularly do in Rome. Indeed, they have only one away win to their credit since they entered the championship in 2000. That, of course, was at Murrayfield in 2007, when we generously allowed them a 21-0 lead in the first ten minutes of the game and then compounded our folly by declining to try to cut the leeway by kicking penalty goals even when there was more than an hour to go. Scoreboard pressure can scramble the brains.

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This is a familiar Italian team. Eleven of the starting XV, and all the replacements, play in the Rabo 12 League for either Treviso or Zebre. The four who don’t are all old friends: Andrea Masi (Wasps). Andrea Lo Cicero (Racing Metro), Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester) and their captain Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais). Lo Cicero, the Sicilian baron, will be winning his 100th cap; quite an achievement. Parisse is the best No 8 in the northern hemisphere, while Castro, the wild-haired Leicester restaurant-owner, is a favourite wherever he plays.

We all know the main thing that went wrong at Twickenham. It was the same thing as has gone wrong for years now: the inability to dominate the breakdown and win quick clean ball. We generally hold our own at the set scrum and are often the better team at the line-out, but you win very few matches if your scrum-half is having to dig the ball out of a ruck. At Twickenham, the Scottish forwards too often seemed slow of thought and slow of foot. They gave England quite an easy time.

Scott Johnson has sensibly resisted calls for change. I’m delighted to see Rob Harley included, because he is 
rarely out of the action. His boyhood hero was, apparently, Jason White, and if he knocks a few opponents back in the tackle as Jason used to, rousing cheers will ring round Murrayfield. He seems able to run for ever and I would expect him to play the full 80 minutes with David Denton replacing Johnnie Beattie midway through the second half. On the other hand, if we are ahead on the scoreboard, why bring on replacements at all?

Some would have liked to see a change at fly-half. Ruaridh Jackson, one respected judge told me, has had chances enough. Actually, though he has won 16 caps, eight of them were as a replacement, often coming on very late in the game, while in one of the eight matches he started – against England in the World Cup – he was off injured after only four minutes. His career has indeed been dogged, and his held back, by a succession of injuries. He is still, to my mind, potentially, our best fly-half, and needs only a run of injury-free games to show that he is of genuine international quality.

He will be 25 next week, still only some nine months older than John Rutherford was when he won his first cap. Though Rutherford didn’t experience victory till his seventh game for Scotland, he did pretty well for the seven years that followed. In any case, we are inclined often to attach too much importance to the No 10 position. A fly-half can control a game, as Dan Carter does for New Zealand, or as young Owen Farrell did at Twickenham last week, only if his forwards and scrum-half give him good ball. Without that, any fly-half struggles to impose himself and will often be hustled into making mistakes. One can recall Jonny Wilkinson being substituted in Paris once because the supply of ball was so poor that Serge Bentsen had reduced his game to rags.

Most matches between Scotland and Italy have been close, and this one is not likely to be an exception. If the Italian pack gets on top, as it did for much of the match against France, we will be struggling. But, if we can remedy our failings at the breakdown and contrive to bring our dangerous runners in the back three into play, there is no reason why we shouldn’t begin our run of three home matches with a victory.

The astute Italian coach, Jacques Brunel, will undoubtedly have taken note of Stuart Hogg’s ability to turn a loose kick into a dangerous counter-attack with Sean Maitland or Tim Visser running off him. Awareness of this danger may inhibit Italy from trying to command territory. It may also lead them to kick for touch, even though this is likely to lose possession, rather than kicking deep.