COULD Scotland be saving the best until last in this year’s Six Nations Championship? They certainly did so in 2017, at least in terms of results, bringing down the curtain on the Vern Cotter era with a 29-0 win over Italy at BT Murrayfield.
Anything quite so one-sided in Rome on Saturday would be a shock, but Finn Russell, for one, thinks the team are ready to sign off on a high.
The way the team has played against Italy the last couple of times has been great,” the stand-off said. “We’ve been really up for the game. This is the last game of the tournament and we want to finish on a high.
“Last year we managed to beat Italy, and there’s a lot of things pushing us to play at our best. We build going along in this tournament, and we’ll be fired up into this game and hopefully have the best game of the tournament.
We’ve not thought of the last four games really, and are just focusing on this game now. We have to play at our best to beat them and stick to our structures.
“We can’t afford to make silly mistakes against them. They’re a dangerous team in defence and attack – they come out with different strategies to catch you off guard. We need to be ready for anything as well as playing our best to take them on and beat them.”
Playing their best, for this Scotland squad, means combining maximum speed with maximum accuracy. In turgid times past they may have been content with squeaking a win against Italy in a low-scoring draw without tries, but they are a more ambitious, more entertaining outfit now.
Grigg’s the breaker
Gregor Townsend’s selection, in particular the choice of Russell’s Glasgow Warriors team-mate Nick Grigg at inside centre, looks designed to avoid getting bogged down in an arm wrestle with the Azzurri. Russell himself, for all that he has grown accustomed to the calming presence of Peter Horne outside him, is looking forward to working with Grigg, and believes the New Zealand-born back will be a key player in the game.
“He’s a good player, a very good ball-carrier. He’s great to have outside me. He’s a bit like a pinball: he can bounce off a few boys and make yards, which is great to have.
“In defence he’s great at the low chop. Comparing him to Horney, he’s a different player. Horney’s distribution is a bit better. It helps me having Horney as a 10/12 outside me, but in terms of managing the game with Nick coming in, he’ll bring in physicality, ball-carrying and tackling. He’ll be great for us this weekend.
“I’ll be on to him all week and chatting to him a lot. He’s not played that much for Scotland yet, but having Horney there to guide him will help him as well. They’re different players but are good at what they do. Nick will be good this weekend carrying the ball and in defence.”
Although Grigg’s rumbustious style sometimes appears most suited to a loosely structured game, Russell insisted that Scotland would have to be more, not less disciplined this weekend. “Accuracy and our discipline,” he said when asked what needed to change from last week’s 28-8 defeat by Ireland.
“We gave them a lot of penalties, similar to the numbers they gave us, but we gave them theirs in crucial positions. In their 22 we gave away about three penalties. That’s an easy exit for them.
“The last ball not going to hand didn’t help either. Other days these balls go to hand and we’re up there competing against them. Accuracy and indiscipline in vital areas of the field.
“It’s good fun – it’s always a tough game. We need to stick to our structures to break them down. They put teams under a lot of pressure, they score some great tries.
“Two years ago it was nice and sunny over there: it’s meant to be wet this time. Both teams play an open style of rugby and it’s a good fun game to play in.
“We’re definitely going to stick with this style of rugby. We’ve had a couple of great wins, and against Ireland we created a lot of chances that we probably should have finished. This style of play is working: we’re scoring some great tries.
“We’re playing good rugby and we’re definitely going to stick with that. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against or what kind of tournament it is, you want to try to win. We won’t be going into our shells because we got beaten last week.”