I never saw last week coming, but we must not let it cast a shadow over the way we play on Saturday. We somehow need to forget what happened at Twickenham and go out and play with ambition and freedom against Italy at Murrayfield. It will be difficult, but the All Blacks are the best side in the world precisely because they learn from every setback.
This is particularly important when we’re looking ahead to Saturday’s match because new Italy coach Conor O’Shea is an acute observer of the game and he will have understood the lessons of Eddie Jones’s masterclass on how to depower and destroy Scotland.
Jones’s first priority was to nullify Scotland’s back row by throwing to the back of the line-out and doing everything to tie them down to the breakdown, and then he ensured incredible line speed to deny Finn Russell any space when Scotland had the ball, and run at him when England had the ball, tying him down so that England could overload the midfield and run through our centres. In both aims Jones succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
There were other things that contributed to Scotland’s defeat, with Fraser Brown’s yellow car among them. But I also believe the loss of Stuart Hogg after just 17 minutes knocked the stuffing out of the side – Hoggy is not only the Scottish player most likely to breach the opposition’s defensive line, he is also a talisman for the team. As soon as he went off, heads went down.
There were also tactical failings that we have to address. We didn’t kick enough, although I suspect that we’ll remedy that against Italy. A side that runs everything is just as one-dimensional and easy to defend against as one that kicks all the time, so we must make sure we’re not predictable. We need to mix it up, but we also need to kick more and apply pressure on Italy’s back three. A good kicking game is not a nice added extra at international level, it is a prerequisite for success.
Despite a defeat that destroyed so many potential Lions careers, there was also one major plus to come out of the carnage. Although under the cosh for much of the game, when Scotland did manage to get into the red zone they scored. It seemed like every time they got into England’s 22 they came away with a try, and had Tim Visser managed to turn that second-half break down the centre into a try they would have ended up with a fourth try and a bonus point.
That ability to score tries will be very important against Italy given that we need to score four tries if we are to stand any chance of ending the season in second place in the Championship. Under O’Shea, Italy have not only become more inventive in attack, but they have developed a remarkable team spirit which has seen them leading at half-time in three of their four matches, including at Twickenham, where had Tommy Allen not missed a couple of easy penalties they would have led 16-5 at the interval.
Italy are even harder to break down than in the past, and a lot of what they have done has been quietly impressive. However, they still tire badly around the hour mark so Scotland’s task is to show discipline and patience and vary the point of attack. We need to constantly probe for weaknesses and then, when Italy begin to flag, to cut loose. Against France last week, Italy missed an incredible 55 tackles in the game, many of them coming late in the game – Scotland will need to keep their nerve, spread it wide only when it is on, and slowly sap Italy’s strength.
What Scotland must not do is to give Italy any reason to hope. I remember the 2000 match where we got beaten in Rome – we started slowly, their tails got up and we were powerless to stop them. Italy have some very good players in Sergio Parisse and Michele Campagnaro and, so far O’Shea is doing a good job of turning Italy into a resilient side that plays with both heart and brains. Don’t forget that this is the team who recently beat the Springboks. But O’Shea is only just beginning to rebuild Italy, while Vern is three years down the line with Scotland – which is why Italy are 14th in the world rankings and Scotland are fifth.
Italy will remember winning here two years ago and will be targeting this game. Scotland’s task is to thwart them because the win is everything. If it comes through flowing rugby that results in tries and a bonus point, then all well and good; but if Scotland have to win ugly, then so be it. We owe to Vern Cotter to send him off with a win after he has put heart and soul back into the national team by leading us to No 5 in the world. Thank you Vern.
Kenny Logan is Physical Literacy Ambassador for www.STEPtoday.com