Al KELLOCK has insisted Scotland have every reason to believe they can do themselves justice in the forthcoming rugby World Cup with officials rolling out a red carpet for the team in preparations which continue tomorrow with the final EMC warm up Test against Italy at Murrayfield (kick-off 5.00pm).
For part of the 12-week training camp the Scots have been billeted in luxury accommodation in St Andrews a situation reminiscent of how, under Tony Jacklin’s captaincy, Europe’s Ryder Cup golf fortunes improved almost from the moment their travel and support networks were upgraded.
If it is a gamble by rugby authorities who, like many other organisations, have been subject to belt-tightening, then the investment in the playing side where it matters most means accountability, acknowledges Kellock who captains a side showing 14 changes from that which overcame Ireland a fortnight ago.
“We are incredibly well looked after,” says the former Edinburgh second row who now turns out for his native Glasgow. “From top coaching, to dieticians, to team management, to Richard Cox our sports psychologist, there is not a stone left unturned. It is the way Andy Robinson wants it; it’s about getting the best for the players so we focus totally on performance. Good facilities take away all excuses. Everything is on hand. The more professional sport becomes the more this kind of stuff happens.
“At the same time, from a player’s point of view, it is about not getting carried away with it. We never take it for granted and, if anything, it adds to the desire because of the great experience we are being given.”
To be fair, Scotland teams have undergone similar preparations for World Cups as far back as 1991 when a best-ever placing of fourth was achieved.
Kellock admits: We want to do our back-up justice.”
It is a moot point whether the five-star approach contributed to Scotland pulling that previous warm-up match against Ireland out of the fire with a late try by Joe Ansbro where previously they might have lost.
What Kellock does suspect is that the victory at the end of the last Six Nations over tomorrow’s Italian rivals might have signalled a turning point in the fortunes of this Scottish team.
Until then, a below-par display against Wales apart, they had been earning plaudits for an adventurous style without getting positive results.
However, the fact Italy came to Murrayfield on the back of a ground breaking win over France seemed to be bring the best out of Scotland.
Kellock says: “Scotland - Italy is a fixture where we know if we play well we can win whereas the same applies to them. Because we had under-performed earlier in the Six Nations that match last March was, psychologically, a difficult one for us. We felt we had been building every time without quite getting the result we wanted, so, to breakthrough in that fixture was, for me, our best performance.”
While Scotland have come in for some criticism for the lack of a cutting edge, it is a fact that in their last three outings, against England, Italy and Ireland, they have twice “won” the try-count while sharing touchdowns in the Calcutta Cup clash at one apiece. The “shut out” achieved against Ireland suggests solid foundations have been laid and Kellock agrees. “All Test matches are generally very tight with one or two scores only. We have worked incredibly hard on our defence which is getting better and better.”
Tomorrow’s match sees Kellock take over captaincy duties from Rory Lawson and so far coach Robinson has not announced who will lead the squad to New Zealand. However, the 33-times capped stalwart seems particularly aware of the pitfalls attached to placing any emphasis on individual effort.
“You impress by playing well within the team and helping the team play well.” A relaxed, but focused, approach is what he will attempt to cultivate knowing that it will best serve Scotland chances if the team expresses abilities collectively.
Insisting that all thoughts of Monday’s final squad announcement will be put on the back burner until after tomorrow, Kellock maintains: “This match will be about focusing on the match and then narrowing things down to individual roles which is something our sports psychologist can help with. Everything else going on has to be blanked out and that shouldn’t be too hard. After all it is a Test match and these are huge occasions whatever the circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Italy have selected a side that has Andrea Masi back for the first time since being invalided off following an early try from full back in last season’s Murrayfield meeting.
The Scots will be wary of former Six Nations’ player of the season Masi venturing upfield while the centre combination of Alberto Sgarbi and Gonzalo Canale were the cornerstones of the 22-21 victory over France last season.