Six Nations: Gregor Townsend needs Scotland tries against Italy
Feb. 18, 2020
For a team that can't score a try comes a Test against a side that can't stop conceding them.
On Saturday, Scotland play Italy in Rome in round three of the Six Nations. It's fair to say that the title-defining stuff will happen elsewhere that day, but this is a major game nonetheless, not in terms of the destination of the championship but in the stability of Gregor Townsend in his role as coach.
With only one win in seven in the Six Nations - and a failed World Cup to boot - this is the moment when Scotland had better combine their newfound resilience in defence while recapturing the execution they had in attack a couple of seasons ago. They created chances in Dublin and had a few moments in the monsoon at Murrayfield, but they only have 18 points and zero tries to show for it.
This has been a season of change. Remember the slow starts that plagued them? They look to be a thing of the past. Remember the embarrassingly soft tries they gave up? They've only let in two in two games so far. Remember their oft-repeated inability to stay in the hunt until the end? They've lost two games by a score. Remember the power deficit? They won the physical battle in Dublin and lost it, just about, against England. No victories, but clear signs of a more direct and less porous Scotland. Progress, of a kind.
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All of this has been happening against the backdrop of Finn Russell's absence. There's a school of thought that Scotland might have won one or both games had Russell been wearing the number 10. Had he been there to bring his ingenuity and defence-busting brilliance, he might have been the difference.
Perhaps. There's another argument to be made that, had Russell been there, Scotland might have lost by more. There's a conflict now between the game the fly-half is exceptional at - high-risk, unstructured chaos, hit-or-bust rugby - and the game Scotland are trying to play - more pragmatic, more attritional, less risk, the style that makes them harder to beat, or harder for them to beat themselves
It's instructive to remember what Dave Rennie said when asked about Russell towards the end of last season. He said his former player is such a creative footballer that he tends to get a bit bored after four or five phases if nothing seems to be happening. He wants to magic up something. Sometimes it comes off and it's electrifying. Sometimes it backfires and it's ruinous.
Rennie's point is that Adam Hastings, though callow, is capable of more patience and more discipline in attack. He doesn't have Russell's genius, but he can be more reliable in keeping the foot on the throat of the opposition by not making the all-or-nothing plays. Given the choice, Rennie always picked Russell first, but his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of both men were interesting. He said that in time Hastings could be as good as, if not better, than Russell.
Townsend would love to get back to a world where he has Russell and Hastings, but that's not going to happen any time soon, if ever. It would be wrong to see this purely as a player versus coach saga now. It's moved on from that. Russell carries with him the memory of what the SRU did to his father, Keith, when unfairly dismissing him from his role in the organisation.
On the other hand, Townsend has a squad to manage and a unity to protect. They might be winless in the championship but there is an undeniable togetherness in this group of players. Speaking privately, some of the players say the bond between them has grown tighter since the number 10 went public. They all want Russell to return but not on terms dictated by him. It's not just a bridge between coach and fly-half that needs to be built. There's also repair work needed on the relationships between the fly-half and the squad of players he's estranged from.
That rapprochement will be required regardless of who is Scotland coach - Gregor Townsend or Uncle Tom Cobley. Rome will give us some idea as to what Townsend's prospects are like going forward.
'Italy will be waiting for Scotland'
Italy have lost 24 championship games in a row. They've conceded 10 tries in their two so far this year, that's on top of the 22 they conceded last season, the 27 the season before and the 26 and 29 in the two before that. Since their last Six Nations win in Murrayfield on 28 February, 2015, they've shipped 124 tries. They've given up four or more in 17 of their matches since. They've conceded five on five occasions, eight on three occasions and nine on three occasions.
All of that creates huge opportunity for Scotland to break their try - and win - duck, but it also adds pressure. They have to score and they have to win. They got some kudos from the game in Dublin and at least they stayed in the battle against England, but there'll be no such nuances if they don't get the job done in Rome - and there won't be too many people making a case for Townsend carrying on beyond the Six Nations either.
Italy's losing run is atrocious, but of the little joy they've had since joining the championship in 2000, most of it has come at Scotland's expense. They've beaten the Scots seven times in all, five times in Rome and twice in Murrayfield. The sides have met 10 times in Italy and the wins have been split 5-5. In seven of those 10 games, only a score has divided the pair of them at the end.
Franco Smith, like all Italy coaches since 2000, will be waiting for Scotland. True, Italy got butchered by Wales in week one but they came back with something a whole lot more credible in Paris. They upset France's lineout, won a couple of penalties from their scrum, scored three tries and had opportunities to score more.
For the second week in a row, wing Matteo Minozzi ran for 100m or more. Minozzi has now scored five times in his seven Six Nations appearances, touching down against Ireland, France, Wales and Scotland in 2018 before missing 2019 through injury and then scoring against France again last weekend.
The 23-year-old is an outstanding finisher, and Smith has another one on the opposite wing in Mattia Bellini, who also scored against France. Bellini has three tries in his last seven Six Nations games.
Italy's forwards, offensively at any rate, are a handful. They've got three big carriers in their back-row in Jake Polledri, Sebastian Negri and Bram Steyn. In their two games they've carried for a combined 400m.
Defensively, they remain suspect, of course. Smith is bringing in change but you can't fix a broken system in a few weeks. It's inconceivable that Scotland won't cut them open at times. The hard and fruitless grunt in the opposition 22 has to be replaced with something more dynamic and cutting.
It's time for Scotland's finishers to turn up in this tournament.
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