In modern rugby, it’s not enough to train and prepare hard, and to execute when it comes to the big games. You’ve gotta have a theme.
Every team seems to have a hashtag these days underlining their special relationship with their fans. Scotland’s of course is #AsOne, England have #CarryThemHome and Ireland’s is the somewhat clumsy sounding #TeamOfUs.
But you have to go even deeper than that. You have to have an internal theme or a mantra that becomes almost all-pervading in the squad. Scotland’s this season seems to be “being the best version of ourselves”.
Barely a week passes in Scotland’s media commitments when this phrase is not said, often twice or more times. The uncharitable might think it sounds like an advert for razors or something.
How good can they actually be?
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) March 12, 2022
But it’s a laudable aim, and when you think about it, it’s also a kind of indefinable target. How good can they actually be?
In the view of the Scotland camp this season, challenging for championships was the actual target – that’s how good they could be.
But Saturday’s 33-22 game in a balmy Rome suggested again that this occasionally entertaining but often unconvincing team may be the best they can be, certainly at the moment.
A team challenging for championships would not leave a back door open into the game for a limited team like Italy. Two late Italian tries didn’t change the complexion of a comfortable win for Scotland, but they were definitely unsettling.
Italy had played with passion and honour in their other three games this season before something went badly wrong and their hearts sank into their boots. Heavy defeats ensued against France, England and Ireland.
Scots again hesitate to stick the fork in
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) March 13, 2022
On Saturday at 33-10 with just less than 20 minutes to play, the Scots could have been ruthless and made something of a statement of the kind of team they are or hope to be.
Instead, very much as they did against Japan in November, they hesitated with their foot on the opponent’s neck.
“Frustrating, rather than concerning,” said head coach Gregor Townsend of the late lapses. But for the second game in a row the Scots’ acclaimed defence shed too many easy points.
There was even just a frisson of concern after Ange Capuozzo’s first try as Italy sensed Scotland had switched off and attacked with gusto.
The next Capuozzo try didn’t come until two minutes after the regulation 80 had expired. But if the Italians got one a little earlier, things would have got decidely squeaky.
There was some good stuff from Scotland in the middle 40 minutes of the game. They countered from deep with great pace and aplomb for their first two tries.
They then punched in the two best field positions they enjoyed all day for further scores either side of half-time.
Ali Price had a super game on his 50th cap being a major part of four of the five scores.
He was rather aimlessly scampering across the pitch on the hour mark when he spotted a barn-door-sized gap inexplicably open up in the Italian defensive line. One dart, one flat pass to Stuart Hogg, and that was the fifth try.
Scotland got great shifts from Hamish Watson, George Turner and Sam Skinner. Hogg rattled about effectively and Finn Russell delivered a few nice moments, although his inconsistent championship continued. Sam Johnson showed that he quite clearly should never have been dropped.
Relief and annoyance
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 12, 2022
Yet from 33-10, instead of potentially kicking on to 40 points and beyond, the Scots backed off. The usual flurry of replacements and tired bodies didn’t help, but it’s not as if Italy weren’t exactly the same.
The sense from the Scots holding the new Cuttitta Cup afterwards was relief at the win, tinged with annoyance at the final few minutes. Neither should have been even entertained.
This was Scotland’s seventh successive win in Italy, and beating should have become – at long last – as routine as it is for the rest of the championship big dogs.
Of course, next week is a real and proper test, possibly Scotland’s stiffest of the championship. After London and Paris last year, Dublin is the last remaining milestone.
But the Irish have stubbornly proved to be Gregor Townsend’s nemesis, certainly as an international head coach, and also Leinster when he was in charge at Glasgow Warriors.
Nothing we saw at Twickenham later on Saturday convinces that the Scots can live with Ireland. The Irish will definitely want to set the toughest possible target for France, who go for the Slam and the Championship against England in the final game of the triple-headed Super Saturday.
Scotland’s very best version of themselves is going to be needed in Dublin to get even close. But one suspects that right now is what we’ve seen already in this ultimately disappointing Six Nations.