Italy v Scotland - 'Pollice Verso' - Thumbs at the Ready

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

I am still in the camp that believes this team are not a million miles away from getting things right in this 6 Nations. Mistakes have littered Scotland’s campaign. Hogg’s glaring spill of the ball against Ireland and his misjudgement of failing to gather Ford’s bouncing ball that lead to Scotland conceding a score from the resultant scrum, determined the wining margins.

Delve deeper into the microcosm of the game and turnovers in good attacking positions, lineout issues and missed tackles all add up to a sense of frustration that you get when watching this team. Whilst it appears that the troubles on the pitch can be rectified I am afraid the impasse between Gregor Townsend and Russell looks well beyond repair. How did it come to this? Playing international rugby is the biggest honour in your rugby career and the fall out between the coach and his star player has created a chasm in Scotland’s 6 Nations campaign.

This sorry state of affairs piles the pressure on Townsend but with 2 losses from 2 games the only guys who can get him out of this mess are his players.

You can just feel the pressure cooker bubbling away. Scotland have the ability to win and to win well but it will take a huge gutsy performance in Rome for Townsend to avoid ‘pollice verso’; the latin phrase used to describe the hand gesture to pass judgment on a defeated gladiator.

After Italy’s much improved performance against France they return to the Stadio Olympico for their first game at home in this year’s 6 Nations. They have had a run of 24 defeats since their last win; ominously that was against the Scots at BT Murrayfield in 2015 but Italy know that they can stop the rot against a nation that they don’t fear.

Scotland just can’t afford to get involved in a fist fight and must execute their game plan which against Ireland was far more structured and direct. I don’t think we can read too much into the performance against England as the weather deteriorated so badly it just seems unfair to criticise the players.

However we struggled at the breakdown and our line out malfunctioned. Why did Fraser Brown not just throw the ball to the front of the lineout? Any ball is better than no ball and this might be the reason that he has lost his place to Stuart McInally.

Brown came into the championship and was selected on form ahead of McInally but now, with the Edinburgh man getting his chance, he’ll be determined to produce the levels of performance that he delivered last season. One of his key strengths is his explosive ball carrying. He has the ability to break tackles and if he does that, it adds another dimension to Scotland’s attack game.

The other 2 changes sees Ben Toolis come in at 2nd row for the injured Jonny Gray. Toolis does exactly what it says on the tin; ‘Take line-out ball at the front, drive hard with ball in hand, make tackles!’ He has played consistently well for Edinburgh but never played out of his skin in an international jersey. Perhaps it’s time he did just that?

The final change sees Chris Harris replace Huw Jones at outside centre. Jones might consider himself a little unlucky to be dropped as he showed a welcome return to form in the lead into the championship. He had one marvellous opportunity to score against Ireland but chose to try and pick the ball up with the try-line at his mercy rather than opt for the kick and chase. Against England he became slightly anonymous as the game wore on and that indifference cost him his place.

Harris gives a better reading of the defensive chores and Townsend, wary of Italy’s backs being able to offload in the tackle, has opted for the abrasive Gloucester centre. As a former centre myself, it’s the one position that I place extra scrutiny on. I do believe it is one of the most challenging, yet satisfying positions to play. In attack you are always thinking of those around you whilst running lines and taking contact are at the forefront of your thought process. The space in which you operate can be suffocating but the ability to read and understand how you manipulate that space is a master tool.

Townsend has had difficulty in determining his no 1 centre partnership but with Harris now given the opportunity, young Rory Hutchinson will have to wait for his moment off the bench. I never thought there would be many changes. Toolis was the one forced selection but the other 2 can be viewed as a bit of tinkering around the edges.

I commented on social media following the England game that this team’s performance should be measured over the next 3 games not the last 2 but if that’s not going to test you how about 2 tests against the World Champions, South Africa and a trip to take on New Zealand?

International rugby is a hard school but if Scotland are to avoid a whitewash this season, it starts this afternoon by executing greater accuracy in all aspects of their game otherwise ‘pollice verso’.

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