Scotland need to “stress” Italy in the first hour of Saturday’s Guinness 6 Nations opener to reap the rewards in the “back twenty” like they did in Rome last year, believes Grant Gilchrist.
The lock played in the game last March when Italy held a 24-12 with 20 minutes to go but were overwhelmed in the final quarter, the Scots rallying with two converted tries and a late Greig Laidlaw penalty to win 29-27.
Lack of fitness was a real issue in that game but Italy have taken steps to solve that and Scotland can’t take it for granted they will be able to reap points at the back end of the game again, says Gilchrist.
“The Italians have got a lot of staying power, and they no longer fade away in the way that maybe they did in the past,” said the Edinburgh lock. “But we always back our fitness against any team.
“We want the ball-in-play level to be high, and we want to stress teams’ fitness. We always look at that back 20 as a strength of ours, but that first 60 needs to be up to a standard.
“We wouldn’t expect or take for granted Italy will run out of gas but we’ll also be playing at a high pace and keeping the ball in play a lot, which will put stress on any team’s fitness.”
Scotland are preparing from an improved Italy vene beyond that game in March, which on reflection Conor O’Shea’s team probably should have won.
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“I reckon you see general improvements across the board with them,” said Gilchrist. “These days you’re always getting a hard game against Italian teams, whether it’s at Test level or in the Pro14. Zebre and especially Treviso, who are in our pool and are sitting second, a point ahead of us, have done really well this season.
“We still need to front up against them because scrum and lineout drive is still a big part of their game. Emotionally, if they can get on top of you at the set-piece then it makes the rest of their game click for them.
“They are more multi-dimensional and have backs that can cause you harm now, but their old strengths lie close to their heart and make a big difference to the way they play.”
The Edinburgh front five likely to form the basis of the Scotland setpiece don’t need to fear anyone on their current form, however.
“We’ve played well over the last few months but we take nothing for granted,” continued Gilchrist. “The guys in that front five are working incredibly hard to get better as a unit and as individuals, and obviously we’re in a different environment and mixing in with different players so we’re making sure that we can bring the good form that we’ve had at our club onto the international stage.
“I always think it is good to come into a different environment and be coached in a different style by a different personality, because you learn new things and add to what you have been working with your club.
“And it is good mentally – it is a refresh – with a new environment, new faces and a new way of putting across messages.”
But with such a potentially strong foundation, Scotland can play an open game or grind out the win if so required, as their last test proved, suggested Gilchrist.
“There were a lot of things we wanted to do better in that Argentina game, but having the ability to rely on your set-piece and find another way of winning is also going to be important.
“As we go forward with this team, we’ve got a way we want to play, but we can grind and tough out games when we don’t play well.
“Argentina was part of that – finding a way to win when the weather is against us and the game slows down – because you can’t always rely on an all-court game.
“Certainly the guys at Edinburgh know that we win games of rugby slightly differently to the way the guys at Glasgow do.
“I think that is a massive positive for the Scotland team that we can harvest these different strengths, and opponents are looking at us now and saying: `are we worried about their scrum or are we worried about their backs?’”