Last week I called Twickenham a haunted house. Words spoken in jest can turn to nasty reality. After playing like zombies for an hour against Italy, England then put on a show reminiscent of Hammer Films at their gory best. It was as if Christopher Lee had risen from his coffin greedy for blood.
They did indeed play extraordinarily well. It was their best attacking performance in the tournament since Stuart Lancaster’s side ran up 55 points against France two years ago and, on Saturday, they defended better than they had done that day. On this form they would have beaten anyone, even perhaps the All Blacks – at Twickenham anyway.
One might say, “the least said about Scotland’s performance, the better”. Nevertheless after the initial English blitz we steadied ourselves and got back into the game with Gordon Reid’ try to make the score 7-20. A 13-point gap is not as big as it used to be, now that most tries are worth seven points – and indeed Finn Russell has kicked everything since that bizarre fluffed conversion in Paris. But, at Twickenham, we immediately gave away a penalty from the English restart. Such momentum as we had had was lost, and the match with it.
Well, Vern Cotter has kept faith with his players, and given them the chance of redemption. Today’s match differs from recent Italian ones; it’s not a Wooden Spoon decider, though, given our wins against Ireland and Wales, defeat would taste more bitter than anything supped off any wooden spoon.
The odds of course are in our favour. Italy have had four dreadful results to our one. Nevertheless they have played some good rugby and have actually led in three matches. Indeed they have had good first-halves. Unfortunately they have always fallen away, badly, after the interval. This is partly because their replacements have been weaker than the opposition’s, partly perhaps because they are not fit enough. So they have been falling off tackles. One may be sceptical of some of the computer assessments of what constitutes a missed tackle, and the claim that they missed 55 against France may be an exaggeration. Be that as it may, they have been failing to make an awful lot of tackles.
They are also missing two of their best players today: Michele Campagnaro and Glasgow flanker Simone Favaro. Campagnaro has been one of the best centres in the tournament and Favaro is a dynamic flanker and terrific tackler. I don’t suppose Finn Russell will be unhappy his club-mate is absent.
Italy may start with three advantages today, two certain, one possible. The first (as ever) is Sergio Parisse who for years has been, day-in day-out, the best No 8 in the northern hemisphere. The second is that they have no inferiority complex when they play us, as they have when they see men in all-white lining up against them. Thirdly they have reason to hope that Scotland’s confidence has been severely damaged by the Twickenham disaster and that they may find themselves up against the nervous error-prone Scotland of the not so distant past rather than the self-assured team that beat Ireland and Wales.
I don’t think they will but this is the real test for Vern Cotter’s team: can they recover from that shellacking? Can they indeed use it to drive them on? They certainly have plenty to play for before a home crowd. A bonus-point win might see us finish second in the table – if Ireland don’t beat England in Dublin.
So how will we set about the game? Against Australia in the autumn and Ireland last month, we played adventurously from the start, scored good tries and got well ahead early. That sort of opening might quickly take the game away from Italy. On the other hand some of us have bitter memories of the match ten years ago when an attempt to play brightly was disastrous: a charged-down chip out of defence and two interceptions gifting Italy three converted tries before late-comers had taken their seats in the stand. It would be prudent perhaps to play territory for the first quarter of the match, confident that we will outlast the Italians.
It would be a surprise if we lose – but we have suffered surprising defeats against Italy before now. Still I have no doubt we have the better team, and home advantage should tell. Italy have lost three matches in Rome, but the only other country to lose at home in this tournament has been Wales against England. The Welsh threw that match away in the last minutes, but re-asserted the value of playing at home when they squeezed the life out of Ireland last week. It’s very hard to win away. So I expect Scotland to recover from Twickenham and win today , and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland recover from Cardiff and deprive England of their Grand Slam.