Only one of the players who will take the field at the Stadio Olimpico would get into a best of the Six Nations team. He is of course Italy’s indomitable captain, Sergio Parisse. On the other hand a composite Scotland-Italy XV would see Scotland dominate by a ratio of two to one .This is why Scotland should win this afternoon. Indeed they have enough good players to win by a comfortable margin. They must know this themselves.
Yet, sadly, no one should underestimate this Scotland side’s ability to let opportunity slip, even to shoot themselves in the foot. It’s been all too evident this season and last. Matches have been lost that should have been won. Try-scoring chances have been spurned. A momentary loss of concentration has led to defensive errors. Wrong decisions have been made. And now the team takes the field burdened by the knowledge that it is two years since they have won a match in the Six Nations. The coaches will tell the players and the players will tell themselves that the Past is the Past, no use crying over spilled milk – or spilled passes – and that you have to live in the Present. Nevertheless the ghosts of dead defeats always threaten to make their presence felt. Still, their opponents today are in no happier a position. They surrendered a winning position in Paris, and then collapsed in the last half-hour against England.
All this is true. Yet this young Scotland team is capable of being our best since we won the last Five Nations title in 1999. That said, they need a win or two under their belt before they are ready to realise their potential. It’s a long time since we had so many proven try-scorers in the back division. The set scrum has been good, even if the lineout has sometimes gone astray. David Denton hasn’t recaptured his World Cup form; perhaps his move south to Bath has been unsettling. He needs a big game today, and not only because Josh Strauss was in terrific form for Glasgow against Munster last week. Compared to England we are short of reserve cover at lock, but are all right so long as the Gray brothers stay fit. The two Johns, Barclay and Hardie, are capable of bossing the breakdown.
Some will say a victory of any sort today will be enough. There are certainly times when the result is more important than the performance, Glasgow’s scratchy defeat of the Dragons on Thursday being an example. It was a match Glasgow had to win if they were to have any chance of making the top four in the League, but for much of the game they were terrible. Passes went astray or were dropped. Players lost the ball in the tackle. Penalties were conceded at the breakdown. Duncan Weir’s kicking was poor, very poor by his own standards. But Glasgow are now mentally tough. They pulled themselves together to win, Weir, himself the toughest of cookies, scoring the winning try.
We may not mind if we win in this style today. Ending the run of defeats is important, and not only because another defeat will make the next match against France at Murrayfield even harder. Yet a scrappy win might be no more than a holding action rather than evidence that we have emerged from darkness into light. Two years ago in Rome, Duncan Weir’s last-minute drop goal allowed us to snatch victory, but we haven’t won a match in the championship since. What we need is something more like that splendidly daft half-hour in Paris in 1999 when Gregor Townsend & Co ran in five beautiful tries. Over to Finn Russell & Co to serve up something similar.
Meanwhile, I suspect that even more people than usual will be hoping that Ireland beat England at Twickenham if only to silence Eddie Jones. The Australian coach talks a deal of nonsense, his assertion that in a couple of weeks he has improved the fitness of the English players by 30 per cent being a prime example. (I wonder what their club coaches think of it.) Nobody minds this sort of empty boasting, but what he said about Ireland’s fly-half Jonny Sexton went well beyond the bounds of the permissible. It’s one thing to say the opposition fly-half will be targeted; that’s usual. But it’s quite another to imply that Ireland’s coach Joe Schmidt is failing in his duty to care for his player’s welfare by picking Sexton, and to say openly that Sexton’s parents must be worried to see him take the field.This isn’t just Warren Gatland-style mind-games; it’s cheap and nasty. Jones may have been winning admirers in the English press – though I suspect he embarrasses many English fans – but much of what he says is stupid and offensive. So it would be very nice to see Sexton kick Ireland to victory.