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FEATURE The five key factors Scotland will target for slick Italian job

The five key factors Scotland will target for slick Italian job
4 months ago

Scotland have entered new territory in recent years under Gregor Townsend, knocking down decades-old records with victories in Paris, London and Cardiff, but the remaining two matches of this year’s Six Nations Championship bring familiar challenges that tend to worry most of a navy blue persuasion.

Italy in Rome and Ireland in Dublin are never anyone’s idea of strolls in the park, but with the Azzurri adventure in 2024 taking on a new heightened form of tears-in-the-eyes near-misses and Irish eyes steeled and focused on another Grand Slam, the next fortnight is as hard a challenge as Townsend’s men could have faced.

Here are five key areas where the Scots have to be on top of their game in Rome this weekend if they wish to build on the promise of the opening three games and head to Dublin at least looking for a first runners-up spot.

BE REAL…AND RUTHLESS

Much of the talk in recent weeks among passionate, loyal supporters has been of Scotland’s ability to beat Wales in the Principality for the first time since 2002 (when it was the Millennium Stadium) and send England home to think again, again, sandwiching that blasted Irish TMO Brian MacNeice who flipped and flopped over a match-winning Scotland try before deciding against it, handing France victory at Murrayfield.

The reality is Scotland’s collective nerve deserted them at key moments in those games, where they should have claimed a comfortable bonus-point win against Wales, exploited gilt-edged opportunities at the end of the first and second halves against an out-of-sorts France and beaten England more comfortably with four tries.

Duhan van der Merwe
Duhan van der Merwe has scored five of Scotland’s seven tries so far, but they have lacked a ruthless edge at times (Photo Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Even in the absence of the electric Darcy Graham, with Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe, Blair Kinghorn, Kyle Steyn, Kyle Rowe, Huw Jones and finishers up front, Scotland now have the armoury to score from different areas, and kick penalties consistently, to create sizeable winning margins.

That they have struggled to put teams away is of course testament to the quality of opposition defences, but also suggests the Scottish team don’t quite believe themselves capable and one corner of their collective brains are still wedded to the ‘phew, we got there and won!’ mentality that was part of the transition from regular losers to genuine competitors.

It is a tough ask, naturally, but the next step is to find a ruthlessness and take results out of the realms of TMO decisions and bounces of the ball, which this year could be the difference between contesting the Six Nations title in Dublin (depending on events at Twickenham this weekend) and playing for second place.

To be fair, the coaches and players are saying exactly that, but proving it is now their challenge. The first thought in Rome has to be simply winning the battles that secure victory, as complacency has often been Scotland’s undoing, but a more clinical edge in the Italian 22 would do that and lift this team to the next level.

AVOID TRAPS LAID FOR RUSSELL

The stand-off will long be remembered as one of, if not the, finest Scotland has ever produced, and is arguably at the peak of his game having a developed a better balance between risk-taking and pragmatism.

The challenge is now coming from opponents taking different routes to defending him, be it trying to shut him down with several runners – which he likes, and where he is at his best – or standing off, slightly, and targeting the recipients of his passes. The latter he is still getting to grips with.

Finn Russell
Russell is still capable of magic moments with ball in hand but now brings greater pragmatism to his approach (Photo Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Italy have often posed unique challenges to controllers, from the early days of running unorthodox and unexpected lines in defence, to inviting deep kicks from which to counter and shutting off flat lines of attacks.

How Russell plays his own game – suited to Scotland’s strengths – and avoids falling into Italian traps that gift willing runners easy ball, and how players around him take responsibility and the limelight at key moments, will be key to the outcome.

NEW BLEND IN BACK-ROW & CENTRE

Scotland have benefited from a largely settled side through the last couple of years, and the one that runs out at the Stadio Olimpico will be a very familiar one. However, the shifting of the back row deckchairs and now centre pairings, with the loss of Sione Tuipulotu to injury, will bring both challenges and opportunities.

The back row reveals a rare strength in depth with Townsend able to choose two completely different trios and, arguably for the first time since the 1990 Grand Slammers, still feel he has a world-class selection. It is an unusual place to be for a Scottish coach and takes Townsend and his team into positions of English and French coaches – where for all the strength you have, you can only pick three, and selection becomes key.

Andy Christie
As well as another ball-carrier, Andy Christie should give Scotland more breakdown presence (Photo Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Rory Darge and Jack Dempsey were stick-ons, but Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson, Andy Christie and Hamish Watson provide slightly different options, and it is little surprise that the coaches have gone with Christie to provide two out-and-out ‘fetchers’ at the breakdown in an attempt to ensure quick ball from the breakdown – a key requirement in Rome. Similarly, the presence of Ritchie and Fagerson on the bench offers quality second-half options.

In the centre, the selection of Cameron Redpath is no surprise either as he has grabbed replacement opportunities and is an exciting talent, but is different to the injured Tuipulotu, both in style of attack and defence, and his ability to lead the backline. The promotion of George Horne at scrum-half is a surprise, with Ali Price on the bench and Ben White rested this week. Again, the need for slick service is paramount.

FRONT UP UP FRONT

There is an old adage that you must earn the right to play rugby and nowhere is that clearer than in the Italians’ backyard. Attempts by Scotland to play fast and loose against Italy have come unstuck, in Rome and at Murrayfield, in the early years of the Six Nations.

Few Scotland teams were sent out to play that way, but players have at various times sought to liven things up a bit. The Italians, rightly, took that to be disrespectful and duly rammed it back down Scots’ throats.

Grant Gilchrist
Scotland will need a big shift from Grant Gilchrist and his fellow forwards to secure a sixth straight win in Rome (Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images)

It starts with the forwards, where Scottish packs who have pitched up in Italy with the same mindset as facing France in Paris – i.e. expecting a tough day at the coalface but ready to match the hosts’ physicality at every turn – have tended to be more successful.

Many with one eye on supporting backs out wide have been embarrassed. Forward parity makes for a close game, but set-piece and breakdown dominance has been key to Scottish wins in recent years.

FORZA ITALIA!

Italian rugby has developed hugely since they were granted entry to the championship in 2000, when of course they celebrated the fact by winning their opening game in Rome … against reigning champions Scotland.

Other nations have carried the game forward at a fair rate of knots, from the Welsh resurgence to Irish dominance and Scotland’s recent improvement, and so it may not be as clear, but Italian improvement is there for anyone willing to look closely. With 10 burgeoning academies dotted around the country and a thriving crop of emerging youngsters – their Under-20s lost by a point to Ireland and beat France recently – the future is bright.

Lorenzo Cannone
Italy led England at half-time in Rome and drew away in France in their last outing (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images)

However, Italy know they need to make a lasting, indelible mark on the championship to earn respect at the top table, and after a narrow loss to England and draw with France, both occasions where they had victory in their grasp, the Azzurri are nursing a wrath and speaking of nothing other than finishing the tournament with wins over Scotland and Wales.

The Scots’ rise under Vern Cotter and Townsend is such that they have moved from a narrow 6-5 lead over the first 11 of their Six Nations fixtures with Italy to a 17-7 advantage in the 13 years since, winning the last eight. But just as this is one of the best Scotland teams to play in the championship, the same could be true of Italy. Bristling with frustration from the draw with France in Lille, they are primed to make a statement back in their own Roman colosseum.

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