Allan Massie: If we can’t score tries today, there’s something very wrong indeed

Scotland last lost to Italy in 2015, 19-22 at Murrayfield. That was Vern Cotter’s first Six Nations campaign in which we lost all five games. This was all the more disappointing because his stewardship had begun with a good autumn in which we had beaten Argentina, scoring five tries in that match, and run New Zealand close before losing 16-24.
Adam Hastings should exert the authority he has shown when playing for Glasgow in the Europe. Picture: Paul Devlin / SNSAdam Hastings should exert the authority he has shown when playing for Glasgow in the Europe. Picture: Paul Devlin / SNS
Adam Hastings should exert the authority he has shown when playing for Glasgow in the Europe. Picture: Paul Devlin / SNS

We have rarely found winning in Rome easy. Two years ago Gregor Townsend’s team scraped home 29-27, and, though Italy are on a dismally long losing streak, there’s no reason to believe it will be easy for us to win today. Italy were admittedly desperately poor in Cardiff, but they were rather better in the Stade de France, where they scored three good tries. Their defence, however, has been poor in both matches, something that might be more encouraging for us if we didn’t seem to have 
forgotten how to score tries 

It has been an odd tournament for us so far, and not only because of the horrendous weather conditions in the Calcutta Cup game. If on the one hand we haven’t scored a try, on the other we have conceded only two, and indeed the try count would have been only 1-2 against us if Stuart Hogg hadn’t let the ball slip from his hands when over the try-line in Dublin. Perhaps in Rome the forwards will remember that try-scoring isn’t their responsibility alone and be readier to trust the backs in the opposition 22.

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There has been some criticism of selection as there always is when a team is on a losing run. The replacement of Huw Jones by Chris Harris puzzles some, while others think that, if Jones was to be omitted, Northampton’s Rory Hutchinson offers more in attack than Harris. The truth is, I think, that we have half-a-dozen centres who are much of a muchness, none of whom might be playing international rugby if they were Irish , French or English. Besides those mentioned, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and Peter Horne are still hovering off-stage while Alex Dunbar is playing regularly enough for Brive to let one hope that freedom from injury will allow him to return to his best form. You might shuffle the pack and come up with half-a dozen different pairings without any assurance of finding the best one.

Winning away from home has rarely been easy for Scotland and Italy will surely be better in Rome than in their first two away games. That said, they have conceded ten tries in these matches, which leads one to think that if Scotland can’t score tries today, there’s something very wrong indeed.

I can’t think how often over the twenty years of Six Nations rugby I have written that we have very nearly a good side, only to find it prove not good enough. Nevertheless I say the same thing again. Though the line-out has been a bit dodgy and Ben Toolis will have difficulty in matching Jonny Gray’s work-rate, this Scotland pack won the physical battle in Dublin and at the very least held its own against England. They have played with fire in both matches and the bench looks stronger today with WP Nel, Grant Gilchrist and young Matt Fagerson all raring to get on. Magnus Bradbury is important because he can give us the pace and power too often lacking. He must also know he needs a big game for the hour he is likely to be on, because the younger Fagerson offers so much with ball in hand and runs intelligent support lines.

Ali Price was outstanding against Ireland and pretty good in the appalling conditions against England. George Horne is likely to be used as he – sensibly, I thought – wasn’t against England to add zip in the last period. Yet this is surely a match on which Adam Hastings, pictured, should exert the authority he has shown when playing for Glasgow in the European Champions Cup. Since, sadly, it looks unlikely that Finn Russell will return this season, Hastings has three matches in which to prove himself.

He may not have Finn’s flair, but the French coach, Fabien Galthie, this week remarked: “Flair is for the poets. I like poetry, but we play rugby, and in rugby there are three things you can’t do without: determination, 
motivation, ferocity.”

If Scotland have all three this afternoon, they should win. If they add accuracy (which has been lacking)and intelligence (which has not always been apparent in their first two games) they should win comfortably. They know their opponents well and the Edinburgh and Glasgow players know that they expect to beat them, and do indeed beat them, when they are playing for their clubs, Benetton and Zebre.

Finally, Stuart Hogg scored a lovely try for Exeter last week, initiating it from his own 22 and finishing it in style, holding on to the ball as if it was a new-born babe he was determined not to drop. A try like that is the sort of thing we have been missing.