Scotland aim to punish Italy with strong Edinburgh flavour in scrum

Scotland lock Grant Gilchrist is looking forward to unleashing the bulk of Edinburgh’s formidable front five on the Guinness Six Nations stage but is wary of a tough battle from Italy’s always-combative pack.

Grant Gilchrist, in action against Argentina last November, may be paired with Jonny Gray in the second row. Picture: SNS/SRU.

The recent successes of Richard Cockerill’s resurgent side in both Europe and the Guinness Pro14 have been built on some awesomely dominant displays by their tight forwards.

Gilchrist could be re-paired in the second row with Glasgow’s Jonny Gray when coach Gregor Townsend names his team today but elsewhere it is likely to be a strong Edinburgh flavour at the pointy end of the scrum, with the ever-impressive hooker Stuart McInally, pictured inset, and back-to-his best tighthead rock WP Nel set to be key men in the front row.

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“We’ve played well over the last few months but we take nothing for granted,” said Gilchrist.

“The guys in that front five are working incredibly hard to get better as a unit and as individuals, and obviously we’re in a different environment and mixing in with different players.

“So we’re making sure that we can bring the good form that we’ve had at our club on to the international stage.”

It will be a more expansive all-round game plan employed by Scotland, and Italy are not the one-dimensional side of old, but Gilchrist is focused on what he expects to be a ferocious set-piece battle.

“I think we still need to front up, especially in the front five because the scrum and lineout drive is still a big part of their game,” he said.

“Emotionally, if they can get on top of you at the set-piece then it makes the rest of their game click for them. So the front five is still a huge part of how they play, although you can see from how they play that they are a balanced outfit.

“They have backs who can cause you harm, and they try to play quickly. They certainly aren’t just a team who just scrum and maul, and try to milk their way up the pitch. They are multi-dimensional but their old strengths lie close to their heart and make a big difference to the way 
they play.

“The first 20 minutes are going to be massive. We’ve looked at them and they tend to start games really well anyway, so we’re under no illusions that that first 20 is going to be a real battle. If we don’t get it right, Italy have shown the damage they can do. So we need to be on it from minute one. That starts with our preparation this week.”

Scotland have experience of poor starts against the Italians in them in the past, gifting them three tries in the first six minutes of the 2007 debacle being the nadir. When successes have come against the Azzurri a common theme has been the Scots coming through in the last quarter or even dying seconds.

“You can’t take it for granted that Italy will run out of gas,” said Gilchrist. “We always back our fitness against any team. We want the ball-in-play to be high, and we want to stress teams’ fitness, so we always look at that last 20 as a strength of ours, but that first 60 needs to be up to a standard. You can’t just rely on that last 20 minutes of a game, you’ve got to make sure you play well for the first 60 to open up the opportunities in the back 20 if they come.

“The Italians have got a lot of staying power, and they no longer fade away in the way that maybe they did in the past. We wouldn’t expect it to happen but we’ll also be playing at a high pace and keeping the ball in play a lot, which would put stress on any team’s fitness.”

The shift up to Scotland sees Gilchrist working with Danny Wilson, the former Cardiff boss who took over as national forwards coach this season, and the 28-year-old admits that brings a different environment from Cockerill’s Edinburgh.

“There is a difference in style between Danny and Cockers, but both are really high-level coaches. Both are right up there,” said the forward, who is set to earn his 29th cap on Saturday.

“There is difference in their style but they are equally effective. I always think it is good to come into a different environment and be coached in a different style by a different personality because you learn new things and add to what you have been working with your club.

“And it is good mentally – it is a refresh – with a new environment, new faces and a new way of putting across messages.”

Scotland’s last international match was the turgid 14-9 win over Argentina at BT Murrayfield and, while Gilchrist is not inviting a similar tense dogfight, believes if that is what unfolds the experience of November will be useful.

“We obviously don’t want that to happen,” he said. “There were a lot of things we wanted to do better in that Argentinean game but having the ability to rely on your set-piece and find another way of winning is also going to be important.

“As we go forward with this team, we’ve got a way we want to play, but if we can grind and tough out games when we don’t play well because we have those extra strings to our bow then that will only make us better.

“Argentina was part of that – finding a way to win when the weather is against us and the game slows down – because you can’t always rely on an all-court game.”