Russell’s suspension, for reckless play against Wales, has already been commuted from three weeks because of his previously good disciplinary record. A further reduction or cancellation appears unlikely, but Laidlaw is confident that the incumbent’s two potential replacements will do a good job if called upon.
“The boys that are in and around training are ready to fill in if selected, and it’s up to them if they come in to put their stamp on the game and make sure they take their chance,” Laidlaw said yesterday. “I’ve played there in the past, but there are boys at the minute playing there week in, week out. So the coaches will look there before they look at me, that’s for sure.
“I’ve played a couple of games [with Tonks]. He’s got a good temperament, pretty level-headed, which is a good temperament to have for a 10. Got a good left foot on him, he’s a big strong boy. So he can fill in if need be, or Peter Horne has got pretty much the same attributes.”
Whoever plays in the pivotal position against the Italians, Laidlaw knows that, after two matches in which Scotland showed many positive signs but ended up losing, it is time to turn promise into achievement this weekend. He believes that the Italians, while very strong up front, may run out of steam during the game against a home squad who are fitter than ever.
“We were frustrated as players a little bit, but I think the performance, the way we attacked and stuff, we’re playing really well,” the No 9 said of the losses to France and Wales. “We just need to pick up on the small detail, watch the penalty count – we probably gave away too many in the first couple of games – and just hold the ball in certain areas of the field. If we do that, it will go a long way to tipping us on the right side of the result, I think.
“It was incredibly tight last year [Scotland defeated Italy 21-20 in Rome thanks to a last-minute drop goal from Duncan Weir]. That was obviously over there, and they’re a proud team and that’s their culture. But we’re delighted we’re playing here at BT Murrayfield – our performances here of late have been brilliant. I think the Scottish public are connecting with this team. Now it’s really important that we push on and make sure that we win.
“They’re a big team. They like the set-piece side of the game –the French mentality almost. If we can play with speed on the game and get quick ball, move it away and lessen the number of rucks we’re having – if we can do that and try and run them out, we feel we can go for 80 minutes and hopefully they’ll run out of steam before we do.
“Italy maybe struggle at the tail end of games. England pulled away in the end in the last game down there. That’s a big part of the game for us. We just need to limit the number of penalties we give away, don’t give them easy field position.”
While discipline in defence is crucial, Laidlaw knows that Scotland need to improve on their attacking play when within reach of the opposition try line. He was deemed to have grounded the ball just short of the try line at the end of the first half against Wales, and a period of sustained pressure after the break also ended scoreless for the Scots. To an extent, the Welsh defence has to take the credit for that, but the skipper knows the responsibility is on him and his team-mates to turn good possession into points.
“[Within five or ten metres of the line] is probably the place it’s hardest to attack from, because every phase they’re blitzing off the line. Sometimes loose ball placement killed momentum, so it’s imperative we just hold the ball in areas. We’ve brought in a couple of new things to try and stimulate quick ball and get us over the line.
“We’ll probably look to play slightly differently again. When we played against Wales we played slightly differently from the French game – I think that’s credit to the coaches and the work they’ve put in and the trust they put in the group.
“We don’t want to play well and get beat – we’d rather play badly and win. If we’re going to be this team we’re talking about and want to be, we need to start winning games, especially at home. We should have won at the weekend, that’s cutting us up, so that energy is driving us forward.
“If we do the things we’ve talked about and limit the errors slightly, I truly believe that we’ll win this weekend. And there’s still three games to be won for Scotland in the championship. It’s a tight championship, we’ve come up just short, we want to get the wheels rolling this weekend.
“We need to win. Of course we do. We want to finish as high up in the championship as we can, and if we get beat on Saturday we’re in a bit of trouble. So we need to win this weekend.”
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