You win some, you lose some
February 23, 2010
Scotland will need every ounce of effort against Italy this weekend © Getty Images
You win some, you lose some. Stay with me here, because there is a fundamental truth at work beneath that trite and superficial cliché. Those with short memories have already forgotten that Scotland won a match last November they should not have won just as they lost a game in Cardiff when they deserved better. These things have a habit of evening themselves out.
In the autumn Test window Andy Robinson's side recorded their first victory over Australia since 1984 and they didn't deserve it. Had Matt Giteau packed his kicking boots the Wallabies would have got the win. Australia enjoyed so much territorial dominance that they opened an embassy in Scotland's half of the field. They butchered so many scoring opportunities that they should have been hung...they were. The Aussie press hung them out to dry.
So don't shed any tears for Robinson's team after that script defying defeat in Cardiff. They deserved better and, in rugby as in most sports, you almost always get what you deserve, but the Cardiff match may just have been the exception that proves the rule. For 70-odd minutes the men in blue played with a tempo, aggression and spirit that Scotland has not witnessed in years but the obvious question everyone is asking now…can they do it again?
It will be psychologically tough but sometimes losing is what sides need to do before they start winning on a regular basis. Ireland had decades of practice before the current generation finally clinched the Grand Slam last season. People forget but England lost one match in every single season from 1996-2002, seven long years of near misses, before Sir Clive's crew finally lifted the Grand Slam in 2003. Losing teaches teams how to win by giving them a painful reminder of what happens when they get it wrong; it is the ultimate aversion therapy.
The next time the team has eight minutes to defend a 10-point lead you can bet that hooker Scott Lawson will make sure that he stays on the field rather than give up the stupidest yellow card since David Beckham last spat the dummy. (Incidentally 47 points have been scored by the opposition against short-handed teams in the Championship to date, at the rate of more than a point a minute.)
If Scotland has a ten point lead to defend in Rome with a man down and only four minutes on the clock you can guarantee that no one will miss a tackle. If Phil Godman finds he is the last defender with the ball in the air he will stand stock still with his arms by his sides and trust his colleagues to beat Lee Byrne to the bounce of the ball.
If Mike Blair is faced with a similar situation as that last restart in Cardiff he will walk to the half way line like he was heading a funeral procession before hoofing the ball into row F of the stand and thereby earn his side a draw. If skipper Chris Cusiter has the chance again he will almost certainly issue those very instructions to his friend and rival having failed to do so in Cardiff.
The Welsh lesson was a painful one for Scotland but, if it teaches them something about closing out a match away from home, then it won't have been all in vain. How the team reacts in Rome will very likely define their season and they have never found it an easy place to play.
Scotland's record of played 15, lost 5 against Italy is the worst of any Six Nations side. Another loss on Saturday or even a scratchy win will undermine all the good work that went on in Wales which was a great performance despite the result. A good win over the Italians, playing with the ball in hand and scoring a couple of tries, will give the Scots the confidence boost they need ahead of the Calcutta Cup showdown. England are not the team of old and look very beatable if the Scots can get their dander up and their tactics nailed down.
Italy comes first and the coach has drafted in Hugo Southwell, Simon Danielli and Max Evans for Chris Paterson, Thom Evans and Rory Lamont with brother Sean moving back to the wing, where he belongs. It's a better backline than the one that started in Cardiff (and unrecognisable from the one that finished that match, which included at least one breakaway forward). All that's missing is Paterson's boot which Robinson will hope does not matter on the day.
Up front Gloucester's Ally Dickinson is dropped to the bench for the experience of Allan "Chunk" Jacobsen who will partner Euan Murray in the front-row. Two years ago when Italy beat Scotland in Rome everyone remembers the last-minute drop goal by fly-half Andrea Marcato which won the match. However the Italian front-row were the real heroes with a first half penalty try to their credit after beasting the Scottish set piece. The Scottish props on the day were…Allan Jacobsen and Euan Murray.
Tartan clad fans will be watching that first scrum in Rome through their fingers. The set scrum does not normally win matches but there is always the exception that proves the rule.
Iain Morrison is the rugby correspondent for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday newspapers
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14
With just two rounds left in the regular season, we look at the prospects of the teams taking part in the Championship play-offs
Joe Simpson talks to Charlie Morgan about loss, Wasps and being England's game-breaker