Before the Wales game, I mentioned that it seems that the Scotland team are still searching for their own unique identity, a style of play that defines this group of players. Well, in that game we saw glimpses of the instinctive, heads-up rugby which pretty much any team strives to achieve, although unfortunately without an end result to show for it.
To underpin those bright moments, this side continues to look more solid in the boring bits of the game – the set-piece, the breakdown – than any Scottish side for over a decade. But there are (buzz-word alert) “non-negotiables” at the highest level, such as not conceding directly from a simple move from a scrum, or exiting cleanly from your own five-metre line, with which we are still in the midst of protracted talks.
The countless ‘Statto’-types of the world are getting very preoccupied with this losing run we are on, but you would like to think that those typically Scottish thoughts aren’t occupying a moment of the players’ time. What can be hard to ignore for any team preparing to play Italy is that this is a no-win situation. So, a victory by 30 points will be down to the lack of quality in the Italian side, or perhaps because they rolled over; scrape it with a ballsy last-minute drop goal and everyone will say you allowed yourselves to be dragged down to their level, and the result is quickly forgotten. And lose, as every team in the Six Nations other than England has in the past, and you can expect a witch-hunt.
Even more than Scotland, Italy are a team whose specific style is difficult to pin down. In fact, for as long as I can remember they have been defined by outstanding individuals rather than any clear collective will. Diego Dominguez, of course, Carlo Checchinatto, Allesandro Troncon, and for the past decade Sergio Parisse have all embodied the Italian cause.
Parisse has had some good players as support acts, but names that have been etched in stone for donkey’s years such as Bergamasco, Bortolami and Castrogiovanni are being phased out one by one, and the injection of players such as Michele Campagnaro, Carlo Canna and Francesco Minto over the past couple of years has given them a bit of extra spark in attack.
But their gameplan still seems a bit jack-of-all-trades to me. They go wide a bit, they hit runners off ten, nine will occasionally have a go, but none of it done with enough accuracy or deception to really worry a top defence. Scotland have, of course, struggled to deal with Italy’s driving mauls over the past few years, but you would imagine that Nathan Hines has drilled the art of stopping them so thoroughly that it won’t be an issue.
However the beauty of rugby, although not if you are a coach, is that as soon as you focus on and fix one problem another one appears. It’s the bucket/hole paradigm. And the most likely hole in our bucket is, as always, Sergio. I know he caused a bit of debate with his drop-goal attempt against France, but it was his successful three-pointer back in 2009 which best sums up how much he loves to torment us. I actually thought as much as it whistled past my left ear on its way to the posts.
One hugely positive thing we took from the Wales game was the momentum we gained from regathering our own kicks. It always seemed to me that taking a ball above chest height like that was considered a binary skill by most coaches and players. You can either do it, or you can’t. The Irish can: mainly, the orthodoxy has it, due to the GAA background of certain individuals. Similar with the Australians and Aussie Rules. But New Zealand are now the best in the world at it, so what’s their excuse? Maybe they just practise it a lot, just like you would any other skill.
I actually heard that Glasgow’s Peter Murchie had spent some of his time whilst out injured in devising new drills focused on catching the high ball, and perhaps Tommy Seymour’s performance in the last match owed a little to Murchie’s work. Elsewhere, perhaps the same goes for the introduction of Richie Gray and our noticeable improvement at the defensive breakdown. Rugby is stuffed full of these uncomfortable, unnatural skills just waiting to be mastered, and the Scottish players seem to be getting better in crucial areas, areas which can turn this into a consistently winning team.