IT’S a funny thing, but although Italy are one of the few major rugby nations who you would get even odds on us beating, you always get the feeling we hate playing against them.
Over the years, they have, of course, inflicted a few traumatic defeats on us and these may be lodged deep in our collective rugby psyche. But beyond that, the two teams’ respective styles just don’t seem to get along, and the matches often end up a proper slog for players and supporters alike.
Last week’s game was a pretty good case in point, and showcased some of the issues in rugby that have the casual viewer rushing to switch to X Factor. Endless scrum resets, a paucity of clean attacking ball and defences constantly having the upper hand don’t make for a fun-packed Saturday evening. However, hardcore rugby fans know that if you endure enough of the dull stuff, your patience will (eventually) be rewarded with a passage or two of decent play.
Scottish fans got their reward in the last 25 minutes, when the team got some possession for the first time in the match and a bit of quick ball miraculously started to appear.
Scotland looked sharp and ambitious in that period, although they might have been slightly disappointed with some of the accuracy of their passing. The big difference from Scotland squads of the past is that there are now a number of backs who can change the game. With a few certain starters still to come in, Peter Horne and Henry Pyrgos have confirmed to Vern Cotter that he has options if he is looking for players who can spark something from nothing.
Sean Lamont, too, has provided a couple of try-making moments and it is quite amazing to see an outside back performing well at international level at the age of 34. Whatever you think of him as a player, you have to admire the discipline and professionalism it takes to keep himself in such outstanding nick, and also the implacable positivity he brings to the Scottish game. To play for Scotland, with all that that entails, for as long as he and the likes of Ross Ford have done takes a particular kind of mental toughness. You could argue that it is actually more impressive than the longevity of a Victor Matfield or a Kevin Mealamu, as at least when they are dragging their middle-aged limbs round the training pitch on a Tuesday morning they are almost guaranteed a win at the weekend to make the pain worthwhile.
Scotland have options in a couple of other positions. Richie Gray made an absolute mess of a normally very good Italian lineout and looked the dominant forward on the pitch. With Grant Gilchrist having made an impressive return from injury and Jonny Gray a shoo-in, we can pick from three top class second rows. The back row is a different story. At the moment, its final make-up seems governed more by uncertainty than by choice. Who will end up as first pick blindside is anyone’s guess, although you get an inkling that Ryan Wilson may just be the front runner after a great finish to the season with Glasgow. After last week, John Hardie is probably slight favourite for the openside spot. He was smashing boys in the tackle, was hard to shift at the breakdown and looks a seriously tough dude. He certainly justified his plane fare over.
We don’t have a Sam Burgess figure to dominate discussion and column inches in the run up to this World Cup but it’s fair to say that the debate over qualification criteria is Scotland’s current cause celebre. Let’s be honest, sentiment and expedience play a large part in how readily the public welcome non-Scottish Scotland players. In Hardie’s case, openside is a position where, unless you are Richie McCaw-class (which only one person is), it may be difficult for fans to see what it is about a foreigner that makes him markedly better than homegrown players like John Barclay or Hamish Watson. And therefore harder to accept his being parachuted in. On the other hand, if Josh Strauss proves over the next few months to be the influential, yard-making, tackle-breaking No 8 at international level that he is for Glasgow, or WP Nel can come in and solve the current dilemma at tighthead, you imagine that a lot of the nagging concerns over their provenance might be pushed to the back of our subconscious.
There are clear arguments for changing the current system, but at the moment we are quite right to use the rules to our advantage. Every other country does it, and we certainly aren’t in a position where we can afford to occupy the moral high-ground.
Again, my own doubts only really come into it when there is not clear daylight between the import and his direct Scottish competition. But when someone is prepared to risk life and limb for their new country in the harshness of the Test arena, as John Hardie did last week and Cowan has done for the past year, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt.