THERE was a time, not all that long ago, when Scotland’s best chance of success was thought to be through keeping the ball tight, squeezing penalties and trusting in the metronomic boot of Chris Paterson to get the scoreboard ticking over in multiples of three, rather than fives or sevens.
That really started to change when Vern Cotter came in as head coach of the national team in the summer of 2014, and – aided by a drip-feed into the side of world-class attacking talents such as Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Huw Jones – Scotland went from averaging 4.8 tries per campaign in the previous five seasons to 9.5 tries per campaign in the four series’ since then.
That commitment to attack stepped up a notch when Gregor Townsend took over the side in the summer of 2017 and immediately stated that he wanted to play the fastest brand of rugby in the world. It was a bold declaration of intent, which has since raised concerns about a possible lack of pragmatism in a sport in which the fickleness of the weather, the referee or the opposition can have a hugely destabilising effect on your own plans.
One example of bold attacking ambitions not quite being realisable occurred during last year’s Six Nations, when Dan McFarland – the forwards coach at that time before his departure to Ulster – explained that Scotland’s line-out woes in the championship related to the desire to get the ball in fast in order to keep the tempo high, which was putting pressure on the throwers, jumpers and lifters which they were evidently struggling to cope with. The need for speed was compromising the team’s ability to secure first-phase ball.
Scotland have been scintillating when they have got it right in recent seasons (think Australia during the 2017 summer tour, New Zealand and Australia during November 2017 and England during the last Six Nations), but they have also had their fair share of calamities (such as Fiji in June 2017, Wales in February 2018 and USA in June 2018).
It has been a roller-coaster ride, but second-row Grant Gilchrist believes that, unlike on a fairground attraction which just goes round-and-round forever, each of these bumps in the road has fundamentally altered the team’s path. In short, they have learned and grown along the way.
Learning on the hoof
“We’re not shying away from what we’re good at, and what has been proven to work for us, but there is a realisation that there are different ways to win rugby matches,” he explained. “And the guys at Edinburgh know that we win games of rugby slightly differently to the way the guys at Glasgow do, which I think that is a massive positive for the Scotland team – that we can harvest these different strengths.
“Opponents are looking at us now and saying: Are we worried about their scrum or are we worried about their backs?
“As a forward pack, we really want to be a threat at scrum and maul, so teams are not just worried about how fast we are going to play but are also worried about how physical we are going to be and how strong our set-piece is.”
Given Edinburgh’s recent form, Townsend is bound to be tempted to start all five of the capital outfit’s tight-forwards on Saturday, which would mean stalwart second-row Jonny Gray missing out on selection for a Six Nations match for the first time since the start of the 2015 campaign.
“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 onto the international stage.”
Italy have also spent the last few years developing different strands to their game, with head coach Conor O’Shea adding a degree of subtlety and stamina to complement their traditional power and passion – but, as far as Gilchrist is concerned, the battle for control at source remains absolutely central to how this game will pan out.
“The scrum and the line-out drive remain a big part of Italy’s game,” he explained. “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 they are a balanced outfit. They have backs who can cause you harm, and they try and play quickly. They certainly aren’t just a team who just scrum and maul and try to milk penalties. They are multi-dimensional, but their old strengths lie close to their heart and make a big difference to the way they play.
A team on the rise
“These days you’re always getting hard games against Italian teams, whether it’s at Test level or in the Pro14,” he added. “The strides that they’ve taken are phenomenal. Zebre and especially Treviso, who are in our pool at Edinburgh and are sitting a point ahead of us in second, have done really well this season. A lot of those guys will be full of confidence coming into the Italian team so we’re taking this game really seriously and we’re not taking their threat lightly at all. If we don’t get our game right, they’ve got the game to really hurt us.
“You can’t take it for granted that Italy will run out of gas. 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 as well. You’ve got to make sure you play well for the first hour to open up the opportunities in the last quarter 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.
“The first 20 minutes is 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 it 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.”
- Meanwhile, Rory Sutherland has agreed a 12-month contract extension with Edinburgh, which will keep him at the club until at least the summer of 2020. The 26-year-old loose-head prop, who has been capped three times by Scotland, appears to have put the groin injury which interrupted his 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons in the past, and as it stands will be chief rival to Pierre Schoeman for the number one jersey with the capital outfit next season, after it was announced that Allan Dell is departing for London Irish during the summer. Darryl Marfo, who started all three matches for Scotland during November 2017, is also on the books until 2020, but after struggling with a back injury he appears to have fallen so far down the pecking order that he has managed only managed one bench appearance back in November this season.