It’s been a tough couple of weeks for everyone in and around Scottish rugby as we gathered around the hospital bed watching the respirator and heart monitor do their jobs as the life slowly ebbed from its body.
Lurking somewhere in the corridors is Sergio Parisse in a set of scrubs, ready to turn off the life support and gut the corpse like a giraffe at a Danish zoo. Perhaps to be fed to the “lions” of the English press.
But maybe all is not lost. Scott Johnson has cut out his worn out metaphors and Scotland have had a fortnight to address the failings against England.
However there is also talk of dissent in the camp with the forwards apparently unhappy with lineout calls, and the decision to play Wilson ahead of Denton has raised many eyebrows so high they are practically in orbit.
Scott Johnson is either a supremely confident or naive poker player, having revealed his hand as early as Tuesday giving the Italians plenty of time to pick out weaknesses in the Scotland team and pick accordingly. To be fair those weaknesses are there for all to see and so plentiful that the Italian coaches would need a year to target them all. Naming the team early will have given no more advantage to the Italians than they already had.
So what will Scotland have to do to beat Italy this Saturday?
1. Target Tommasoy Allan
We said Tommy, and he said Tommaso, and then he called the whole thing off. The reasons behind Tommaso Allan’s decision to opt for the Azzurri ahead of Scotland have been raked over so much that there’s very little left to discuss. He was given the opportunity to play for Italy and Scotland weren’t willing to fast track him into their national side. Fingers have been pointed at each side, but as the saying goes every time you point your finger three more are pointing back at you.
Both Wales and France gave Allan a lot of time on the ball knowing they had the ability to soak up and counter Italian pressure. If Scotland can target him and put him under pressure in the same way they targeted Oquera at Murrayfield last year they will soon find out whether or not he is the real deal at international level.
Allan has been first choice fly half at Perpignan this season having fought his way into the team, however they are currently sat 11th in the French Top 14 so that is no mark of his quality or otherwise. Only time will tell whether Scotland have lost out. It’s a shame Johnny Gray has been over-looked this weekend. The former under-20s captain would have been the perfect choice to “look after” his old teammate.
Addressing this point is so obvious that it almost feels like cheating. However it needs addressing especially as Italy have only lost one lineout in their matches so far, compared with Scotland’s ten. The percentages are even more alarming. Italy have a lineout success rate of 95% compared to Scotland’s 37%.
This week there has been a suggestion that the Scottish forwards are unhappy with some of the lineout drills. To a certain extent coaches must exert their will and control over a squad but with the lineout in such disarray it is madness to continue to ask players to carry out plays they lack confidence in.
In 2009 Craig Burley suggested some of Scotland’s international footballers were “too thick” to understand tactics. No one is suggesting that is the case here but if players cannot understand or complete the moves coaches are coming up with, it is the coaches who must adapt their approach.
The lineout was already under pressure under Andy Robinson and has worsened under Scott Johnson’s watch. This writer has criticised Ross Ford in the past but it has become clear that the problems in the Scottish set piece run much deeper. It was heartbreaking to see Scotland fans ironically cheering completed lineouts against England and even more sad to see Ross Ford’s early substitution celebrated by the crowd. Ford is still young and able enough to recover but there is a risk his international career may end in tatters through no fault of his own.
3. Tackle Battle
Scotland and Italy’s tackling in the tournament so far has been poor. Italy have a tackle completion rate of 86% with Scotland just edging them on 87%. Neither is anything to write home about. Should that transpire on Saturday it will like watching two donkeys trying to run in the Grand National.
Scotland can and have done better in the recent past whereas Italy have generally struggled to break a tackle completion rate of 90%. It presents an opportunity and if Scotland can focus on making their tackles they will undoubtedly gain the upper hand.
There is some concern over the performance of Ryan Wilson. A key role of a blindside forward is to smash the opposition, clear out rucks and marshal the opposition 8 and 9. The Scottish forwards missed nine tackles against England and Wilson accounted for just under half of those alone. He was fortunate that Chris Fusaro spent almost the entire match with his arms wrapped around Billy Vinupola’s ankles or the score could have been a lot worse. Wilson will need to step up to deal with Sergio Parisse and allow Fusaro to get on with the job of stealing the ball in the ruck.
4. Get Stuart Hogg into the game
This may seem like another obvious point but Stuart Hogg has been Scotland’s best attacker beating six defenders and making three clean breaks. The best Italian player has only beaten four defenders and made two clean breaks.
Scotland’s game plan against England was to kick for possession and we all know how that went. However in the early stages of the Ireland game Scotland were able to string together some decent phases of attacking play even if they didn’t make much progress down the pitch. Mainly it was all fairly one dimensional. If Scotland can vary the line of attack and bring Hogg in from deep they will find holes in the Italian defence.
5. Just be better
A lot of the frustration felt by fans has come from the fact that they know Scotland can do better. Whether the problems on the pitch relate to poor coaching, poor tactics or a lack of motivation it has little to do with a significant lack of skill. We have all seen what the likes of Duncan Weir, Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour are capable of on the international stage but not one of them has put in a performance so far in the tournament.
The forwards, with a couple of exceptions, have been around the block enough to know and understand what is required of them but some of the more experienced players seem to be playing in a daze. Jim “who me sir” Hamilton is also becoming more of a liability than threat and is responsible for more penalties being awarded against Scotland that should be acceptable. He is, we are told, one of only two players capable of “calling” the line out. If it is such a specialist skill the lack of depth in the current squad is a significant failure on the part of coaches past and present.
There appears to be a distinct lack of passion and energy about Scotland’s play which is particularly concerning as it has played a large part in carrying the team over the line in the past. If Scotland were a character in the Wizard of Oz we would be the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Dorothy combined. In desperate need of brains, heart, courage – and a way back.
Here’s hoping Sergio Parisse and his winged monkeys don’t scupper their plans.