Ten years ago, Scotland’s assistant coach Nathan Hines experienced the nadir of a 77-cap international career which also spanned notable low points such as being coached by Matt Williams.
That day started with Scotland trying to be bold against Italy, throwing the ball wide from the off. But when scrum-half Chris Cusiter was intercepted and stand-off Phil Godman was charged down within the first 10 minutes as Scotland conceded three early tries and went on to lose 37-17 at Murrayfield, meltdown was at hand. Hines had experienced defeat in Rome in 2004 and would go on to taste it again in 2008 and 2010, but nothing was as bad as being humiliated by the Azzurri in Edinburgh.
“I can remember my mood, I can remember what I was saying to myself,” he said. “I was looking up at the clock and thinking... well, it’s a word that you can’t print. I think we got our tactics a little bit wrong that day. It’s something we didn’t prepare for, being that far down. Giving any team a 21-point head start, you’re not going to have an enjoyable day at the office, are you?”
Hines was not involved with Scotland two years ago when Italy came to Murrayfield and left with the spoils, yet he has seen enough of them this year to know that it could happen again. There is almost a presumption that Vern Cotter’s last game in charge of Scotland will end with a convincing win – the talk of try bonus points is one of the reasons why this is the first-ever sold-out Murrayfield for the visit of Italy – yet Hines has a deep concern at the threat posed by an Italy side that has been revitalised under new coach Conor O’Shea.
“Italy haven’t just beaten us in the past, they’ve also recently beaten South Africa,” he said. “They’re a good side and have been leading in three of their four games in this Six Nations, so we can’t say they’re just not going to turn up. At the end of those games the scoreline has shown different to what they’ve done on the pitch. We need to worry about our performance first because we’re going to be up against a very competitive Italian side who are going to be very motivated to roll us over.”
If it was difficult enough to get back in the swing after last week’s thrashing by England, the mood music has not been helped by Friday’s announcement that Richie Gray has failed a late fitness test and will be replaced in the starting line-up by Grant Gilchrist rather than Tim Swinson. The older Gray brother has been an outstanding ball-carrier in this year’s Championship and will be much missed against an Italian pack which will target Scotland’s set-piece.
If that gives cause for concern, there is also the small matter of Scotland’s habitual failure to finish the Six Nations on a winning note given that the last time Scotland won their final game of the championship was in 2011 when they beat Italy at Murrayfield.
That said, if Scotland can overcome Italy – and given the nine-place gap in the world rankings that should be a given – they will not only retain their fifth-paced world ranking and be seeded for the next World Cup, but they will also win all three home Six Nations matches for the first time.
Ending a Six Nations that started so promisingly with a monstering by England and then defeat at home by Italy would be an unthinkably flat way for departing head coach Cotter to bow out.
Although the Kiwi has forbidden his players to talk about the match in terms of his farewell, giving Cotter a decent send-off after three transformative years is a huge motivating factor.
“Vern’s definitely passionate about this job and about Scotland, you can see it when he talks to us,” said back-rower Ryan Wilson. “But it’s a mark of the man that he doesn’t want anything this week to be about him. Vern’s a brilliant coach whose done a lot for this group, and losing someone like that is going to be a loss for Scottish rugby. He’s been great throughout the time I’ve spent with him and everyone can see the work Vern has put in.
“The culture has changed under Vern. We were always that team that was nearly there, nearly there. I think we’ve got over that hurdle now. We’re winning tight games and winning games where if we are in it in the last 30 we know we can grind it out.”
If last week’s one-sided defeat did not come into that category, Wilson knows there is only one way to make amends for the Twickenham massacre.
“What happened last week was unacceptable in a Scotland shirt,” he said. “No one wants that to happen. We’re excited to right the wrongs, go out and put in a good performance at home. We’re only looking at winning on Saturday.”