High tempo, with style as well as substance, is key to beating Italy
I EXPECT Scotland to win today. Italy are strong in certain quarters, but Scotland have a better spread of talent throughout their squad. It will be all about Scotland dictating the tempo, which will prevent the Italians from playing to their strengths.
The team cannot allow themselves to fall into the trap of playing too conservatively, because that will play into Italian hands and perhaps allow the game to become the kind of scrap that could go either way. But, at the same time, Scotland cannot just keep spreading the ball wide without a lot of direction. We should be confident of playing a good brand of rugby.
A high-tempo game does not necessarily mean going wide-wide. It’s about continually moving the ball around, preventing the opposition defence from settling, and looking for holes. Sometimes, if enough defenders get sucked into the breakdown, those holes will appear out wide, and it will be up to the likes of Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour to exploit them. But they can also occur close in, and if opportunities like that occur we can look to backs such as Duncan Taylor to exploit them.
We need to get a lot of go-forward from the likes of Taylor, who played very well against Wales two weeks ago and really showed his ability with that late try, and from the forwards too, especially Richie and Jonny Gray. And the key to giving them the platform to get onto the front foot lies in our front five becoming dominant.
I said before the Six Nations Championship began that our front five could match or better any other front five in the competition, and I’ve seen nothing in the first two rounds of matches that has changed my mind about that. Italy pride themselves on their scrum, so if we can get on top of them in that department it could have a damaging effect on their morale. Richie and Jonny obviously have an important part to play in the set piece, but if we do get on top it will be good to see them carrying more ball in the loose.
One of the main strengths of the team that Vern Cotter has developed over the past year is their ability to play fast, attacking rugby. Against Italy in the pre-World Cup friendly at BT Murrayfield, and then against Wales a couple of weeks ago, we saw how much ability they have going forward.
That is why maintaining a high tempo will be vital: it will allow us to play to our strengths, and prevent Italy from playing to theirs. It’s about making them uncomfortable and raising the tempo above where they’re happy for it to be. And it’s about keeping up that high tempo for as long as possible – hopefully right until the end of the match.
Having said that, I have to admit that something else that would come in very useful is some sort of stroke of luck. When you’ve lost a few games there can be a tendency to think that your luck’s not in, so if Scotland do get a break early in the game, that could help them believe that this is their day.
It could be a really good kick to the corner from Finn Russell, a fortunate break of the ball, or even a decision from the officials that goes our way. Whatever it is, if it comes early in the game it could provide the kind of spark that will inspire Scotland to have a real belief in themselves.
At the same time, that could also have the effect of silencing the home crowd, which will be an important aspect of the match. The Italian crowd can get very passionate and give their team some rousing support, so silencing them will be good.
The other thing Scotland have to do is prevent substitutes such as Martin Castrogiovanni coming on to an ecstatic reception and having a big impact on the game. I think the Scotland bench is good enough to do that, and I think it could be an exciting day, in particular, for Rory Sutherland and Moray Low, the two replacement props who have been brought into the squad for this game. Moray has been doing well in a successful Exeter side, and will be really highly motivated today, which will be his first opportunity for a while to show what he can do at international level. He can come on and have a big impact.
The backs replacements look well placed to do that too. Peter Horne has the ability to change games, as does Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, and Sean Lamont is a great impact sub to have.
This is a big game for the whole squad, one that could be a catalyst. Everybody sees the ability and potential of this group of players. A win against Italy today will be important in context, because it will bring a dismal run in the Six Nations to an end. But it will also be about establishing a real confidence in the style of play that the team is trying to develop.