Make no bones about it, for Scotland, this weekend’s trip to Italy is all about winning.
After starting the Six Nations with two narrow losses, the quality of the performance is secondary to a badly-needed positive result that would ease the pressure on the team and coaches.
Scotland haven’t lost to Italy in five years and seven Tests – that 2015 defeat remains the Italians’ most recent victory in the championship. Most of the current squad don’t know the anguish of losing these matches, particularly since Scotland last went down in Rome way back in 2012.
They’ve improved out of sight from the teams that lost at home to the Azzurri in the earlier part of the decade. Where Italy are, I’m not sure. Individually they have some fantastic players that represent their respective club sides admirably. Their back-row is up there with the best in the Six Nations. But I’m not convinced this is transferring to the international game yet.
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After the Calcutta Cup defeat in truly heinous weather, Gregor Townsend has brought in Chris Harris for Huw Jones at centre, swapped hookers with Stuart McInally replacing Fraser Brown and in the second row, Ben Toolis starts in place of Jonny Gray, whose tournament-ending injury is a big blow. You expect changes after losses and Gregor has never been a coach that has shied away from making big calls.
Sometimes it needs to be a horses-for-courses approach. In leaving Jones out of the 23 and starting Harris, it looks like Gregor is going to go for a more direct style, using the power of the Gloucester centre to generate go-forward and front-foot ball. He is a more solid defender than Huw and away from home, Gregor has a big focus on defending well and not giving teams easy momentum and territory.
The subtleties of form and selection can be so drastic in rugby. One minute, people are touting you as one of the best in the world and the next you’re dropped for your country’s biggest game in years. The ins and outs of form, or performance momentum, can be infuriating and become all-consuming.
When you’re at the centre of it, it feels like there’s no way it’s going to change, media perception of your form influences selection, and you end up questioning your own performances and how you improve. When you’re younger, it can be really hard to get your head around. As you get older, you back yourself, you realise that the cream rises to the top and that while short-term disappointment can be abject, you understand that things will turn themselves around if you continue to do what got you this far.
The @johnbarc86 Column:
"As a player and someone who knows Finn, I take issue with the people labelling him selfish."https://t.co/8HVHinXzt2
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 16, 2020
Just as selection and form can fluctuate, so too can the public perception of how a team is playing and the volume of pressure on a coach. After the Ireland game, people spoke about how well Scotland had done. If the result was disappointing, the performance was far from it. Intensity, power and energy were synonymous with Scotland that day. Nevertheless, a losing bonus point was all it yielded, although you cannot help but look at how Ireland dismantled Wales a week later to appreciate how good Scotland were. The England game, as I mentioned, was a non-event as a rugby spectacle. Storm Ciara saw to that.
So suddenly, we head to Rome talking about what another defeat would mean for Gregor and the players. You are expected to beat the teams below you in the rankings and after such a bad 2019, losing this one will only add to the pressure.
Asked if he had spoken with Russell since he made his public response to the Sunday Times, Townsend told a press conference: “Since we spoke to you, probably not, no."https://t.co/Hi2wsvbZ0A
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 19, 2020
I don’t expect that pressure to hinder Scotland, though. Diamonds are made under pressure, and I fully expect the players to be confident going out there. There is a big onus on the newer leaders in the squad to step up and run the show. Not having emotional baggage is a good thing, but if Scotland don’t start well in Italy, that’s when a bit of experience from leaders who have been involved in these contests in the past comes to the fore.
Test matches are over in the flash of an eye and can unravel before you know what has happened. Leaders need to thrive in adversity, offer resilience and guide the way for a Scottish victory.
Come Saturday, there will be a target on the backs of the Scotland players. This is the game Italy relish most every season (and undoubtedly view as their best opportunity for a win) and when their crowd gets behind them, it gives them an almost intangible injection of belief and verve. When they’re ahead and motoring in Rome, they become very hard to rein back in.
But I feel now that Scotland have improved well beyond Italy. On paper, Scotland should win this game and win it well. Unfortunately, rugby isn’t played on paper and this will be a hard game away from home. If Scotland play as they did in Dublin, they have got far too much quality and experience for the home side to handle. It should be a Scotland win – and frankly, it has to be.
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