Was the World Cup campaign a dream? I only ask because it sometimes seems so, like one of those impossibly perfect holidays which inevitably draw to a close with you ending up back in front of a computer screen on Monday morning, wondering what the hell just happened. Right now we are all in a metaphorical Monday morning, back to the cold reality of the day job and none too happy about it.
We can talk about losing runs and compare this team with the one that couldn’t buy a win in the 1950s or any other that you care to conjure up but the truth is that Scottish rugby has failed an entire generation of supporters. My youngest was born 21 years ago in 1995, too young to remember the 1999 Five Nations success, so he has known nothing but failure all his life, especially in the Six Nations with just one season (2006) when Scotland won more games than they lost.
He understands, on an intellectual level, that Scotland can be successful, he just hasn’t witnessed it in person other than the occasional isolated atoll of victory amongst an entire ocean of explanations, excuses and all the other falafel that comes with failure.
Old habits die hard, especially losing ones, but this squad of players is still the best bet to lift Scottish rugby out of the mire. Scotland remain competitive and should have the wherewithal to win today in Rome. If they can manage that, one or even two more victories would quickly follow. There are those that would raze the entire edifice of Scottish rugby to the ground just at the very moment it is showing the first signs of spring.
Glasgow won the Pro12 last time out, let’s not forget, and if they fell again in Europe this season at least it was to the big spenders of Racing 92 and Northampton Saints. More importantly for the future health of Scottish rugby the Under-20 side not only beat England for the first time ever at that age grade, they thumped them 24-6, scoring four tries and playing some brilliant, intuitive rugby under the eye of John Dalziel, a young Scottish coach who would be going places if he had any place to go to.
Scotland should win today because they are a better team than their opponents, who will nevertheless utilise all the passion they can muster, however unfashionable that may be. Italy have lost their best lock, Irvine-born George Biagi, and his replacement Josh Furno has had just one league start for Newcastle Falcons since the World Cup (and that was back in October). Italy finally unearthed a classy ten in the shape of Carlo Canna only to see him injured for this game and replaced by all 18 stones of Kelly Haimona. Full-back David Odiete, even lighter than Stuart Hogg at 13½st, is more paper than rock under the high ball.
The Scots are ranked above Italy by World Rugby, 11th versus 12th. It’s just one place but the Scots are almost five full points ahead of today’s opposition at 76.80 against 72.01 which is a yawning chasm. (If Scotland were five points higher they would be ranked 7th, ahead of France.) Scotland would have several players in the Lions squad were it selected today, Italy would have one (if he were eligible). Put together a composite side made up of the two teams and Scotland would take ten of the 15 starting places, maybe more.
Vern Cotter could have pulled his horns in and attempted to grind out a low-risk victory but he stuck to his guns, starting his twin opensides and he will keep faith with the open, running rugby that suits this squad best, although the Scots may need to be more direct before they risk putting width on their attack.
Italy must be going through a mid-life crisis because they have abandoned the sturdy Fiat Doblo and upgraded to a Ducati Monster. From being the least adventurous side in the Championship, the Azzurri threw the ball about with reckless abandon against England and paid a high price for their trouble. Cotter suspects that they will revert to stereotype this afternoon.
“I think they will always use their strengths,” replied the Scotland coach when asked which Italian team would turn up today. “Their strengths have been a big pack of forwards. Scrums to a lesser extent but lineouts and lineout drives, they have been good there.”
For once in this tournament Scotland boasts a few options on the bench. Moray Low’s promotion at the expense of Zander Fagerson is the right move given the youngster’s learning curve is like the Eiger and Rory Sutherland will only get better with time in the saddle. Ruaridh Jackson and Peter Horne both offer intelligence off the bench, although which one will replace Finn Russell is an interesting conundrum for Cotter, should the first-choice stand-off suffer an injury. Everyone is craving a win but Cotter should stick to his guns and focus instead on the team’s performance. If his team minimise mistakes and play anywhere close to their potential that should be enough to see them over the finish line. This Scotland squad are not quite as good as we had once hoped but not nearly as bad as some would have you believe.
The last word goes to one former Italy coach. Nick Mallett writes for the data company Accenture on the RBS Six Nations official site:
“It is time for Scotland to stop talking a good game and start actually playing one.”