Scotland were leading by three points in Cardiff just after the one-hour mark but Wales had a scrum five metres from the visitors’ line. The first scrum was blown up because it was unstable. While they waited for the re-set, John Barclay’s comment was picked up on the ref’s microphone: “They’re absolutely dying.” The barb was aimed at Welsh tighthead Samson Lee, a friend from the Scarlets, but still, the flanker may have been on to something.
The second scrum collapses and is re-set. Wales appear to get the first nudge at the third time of asking but the Scots find the right gear and surge forward with loosehead Alasdair Dickinson pumping Lee backwards as the Welsh front row disintegrates.
A victory for Scotland’s tight five, or so you’d think, but instead of the expected penalty, their reward, if it can be classed as such, was to see Jamie Roberts score the decisive try just four plays later.
And so to Rome, where Scotland will attempt on Saturday to arrest a losing run of nine matchs in the Six Nations.
“We have performed quite well,” says Dickinson cautiously, when quizzed on his specialist subject. “The scrums, some of them have been 50/50 and the refereeing is a bit of a lottery now but we’re functioning well and becoming a settled team.
“These guys [Italy] live for scrumming and mauls and lineouts but so do we. That’s an area we’ve improved a lot in the last couple of years. The fans will try and build pressure on us, rightly so, and the media will get on our backs about these losses but as players we’re doing everything we can to get better. I don’t really know what to say when people say, ‘what are you going to do to win?’ We’re doing everything we can, we’re trying to get better. These wins will come.”
If Dickinson and the rest of the Scotland squad are getting fed up fielding the same old question, it is easy to understand why they are asked in the first place. A few months ago Scottish rugby looked ready to take a significant step forward, now it looks like the game has been travelling in circles because we find ourselves heading to Rome in search of redemption, and not for the first time. Scotland have not won a championship match since visiting the Stadio Olimpico two years ago, when Duncan Weir’s late drop kick gave them a one-point victory.
I had a mechanic fix my car last week (and by fix I mean pour diesel into the tank). Once he knew what I did for a living he asked immediately why Scotland were so good at the World Cup but are as efficient as the Keystone Cops in the day job? It’s a good question but the Scotland fix is no harder than my car: concentrate for 80 minutes, defend like your life depended on it and keep mistakes to a minimum.
Scotland have already played the best two nations in this year’s championship and, if Cotter’s team looked well below their best on the opening weekend against England, for which they deserved whatever brickbats came their way, they were admirably competitive for much of the Cardiff encounter.
This squad are missing Alex Dunbar more than anyone will admit, for his organisation in defence as much as his ball carrying and tackling ability, but head coach Vern Cotter may freshen things up all the same. Peter Horne will be challenging for Weir’s place on the bench, Rory Sutherland must be close to taking Gordon Reid’s spot and Josh Strauss may be employed at flanker to help blunt the Italians’ forward power before Scotland resort to twin sevens late in the game when the match opens up – if it opens up.
This is Azzurri coach Jacques Brunel’s last match in Italy and potentially his last chance of a victory. Whatever his other failing, at least the Frenchman plays to his team’s strengths and how Scotland cope with that first driving maul will be crucial. Cotter cannot claim he has not been warned after seeing his side ship two late tries to Italy’s maul at Murrayfield last season.
“Historically the Italians have been very strong up front,” says Dickinson, his assertion going unchallenged. “They’ve got a lot of depth in their front row, a lot of experience as well. It’s an area where they’ll definitely come at us, but it’s just another thing we’re going to have to deal with. We’re going to have to negate that threat and impose ourselves as well. They’ll be confident against us, having won last year, but we’ve just got to go out there and play. We’ve got to start winning.
“We showed what we can do against them in the summer, when we started playing and playing well. If we can string together an 80-minute performance and knock on the head these silly things that are costing us at the moment, we’re going to be a dangerous side. But by no means is it going to be easy, it’s going to be brutal, especially up front.”
Coaches can concentrate on winning, unwise in Scotland’s case, or they can focus on performance, which is why everyone was angry after the Calcutta Cup when the Scots had feet for hands.
If Cotter’s team perform in Rome as they did in Cardiff they will win with something to spare. You fancy Scotland will win this one almost regardless: they are a better team than Italy and if they can impose their high-tempo game on the opposition they should finally shake off that run of championship defeats that has doggedly kept them company.
“When you are on a losing streak of any kind it’s very tough to get out of,” says Dickinson. “Sometimes you think nothing’s going to go your way. But if you’re going through hell, you’ve just got to get going. There’s no magic answer.
“None of us is going to back down, or stop trying or stop believing. That’s going to get you nowhere. We’re going to stick together and keep going. I’m pretty old school when it comes to this sort of thing – you just go out and practise until you get better. That’s what we’re doing. There’s no magic remedy.”
The match will be close – games against Italy usually are – but victory in Rome should breathe some belief back into Scotland and three wins from the last three games is not entirely beyond them.