Allan JACOBSEN rounds off a milestone international rugby season in Rome tomorrow desperate for a victory to honour the men he names today as key to setting him on the road to becoming his country’s most capped prop forward.
Jacobsen overtook Edinburgh forwards coach Tom Smith during the current RBS Six Nations Championship and is poised to equal Capital legend Scott Hastings on 65 caps tomorrow.
But none of this would have been possible, says Jacobsen, 33, without grassroots help and support. “Now that I am older I think a lot about my early days in rugby. Don’t get me wrong. I still believe I have a bit of time left playing before staying involved in rugby, which is my plan. But I have never forgotten how differently things could have turned out and I’m just grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way.”
Jacobsen’s break came as a teenager when Willie Innes and Eamonn John at the Preston Lodge club got him a plumbing apprenticeship. It was funded by East Lothian Council.
“The idea was that I would get away from work for extra training with Edinburgh or Scottish age-group teams. Sponsors also helped and at age 16 or 17 I’d otherwise not have been able to get away from work to do all the rugby things I had to do in order to stay in the game.
“Fortunately I finished the apprenticeship one day before I signed for Edinburgh as a young lad keen to follow the likes of Tom Smith, Mighty Mouse (Ian McLauchlan) and David Sole who were the props I knew about and looked up to as amazing players who had represented the Lions.
“I never thought I’d get anywhere near the number of Scottish caps they had never mind overtake their totals.”
If there is a message for Scottish Rugby in its current state where the team have gone six matches without a win it lies in nurturing more players of a similar background to the man they call “Chunk”. At the very least that is as essential as parachuting in players who may be suitably qualified but who maybe have yet to set foot in the country as outlined in plans given added substance his week by the Murrayfield hierarchy.
Sometimes the very best prospects are under the noses of those charged with finding them for the cost of a bus ticket rather than an airline bucket seat and, at Preston Lodge, for example, Scott Murray (87 caps) was plucked from packing supermarket shelves by eagle-eyed scout Willie Paterson.
All that is for later and not what concerns Jacobsen, certainly not today, where his objective is to ensure that an infernal losing streak and the worst since six-in-a-row in 2003-04 is not surpassed in the Eternal City. Also, he is aware that a win from the final leg of this tournament if not calculated to ‘leave ’em laughing’ would at least provide a sweeter taste to take into the summer albeit Chunk insists: “It is always about the next game and it is going to be a war out there, a set-piece gain-line war.”
Much has been made about the strength of Italy’s traditional scrummaging strength – what are we to make of the fact that three particular pack changes based on recalling Castrogiovanni, Bortolami and Barbieri, have added a massive 177 caps’ worth of experience to all three ranks of the pack – and six previous outings against the Azzurri have taught Jacobsen it is the generator of spirit as well as power.
“As has been proven over the years a lot of Italy’s strength comes from their feeling in the scrum, their pride and so on,” says Jacobsen. “Energy does generate from strong scrummaging but if we concentrate, give our all in there and put them under pressure then that will be a good starting point for us, too.”
Jacobsen might have been expected to have seen and done it all in rugby but the involvement this week of ex-SAS officer Floyd Woodrow to address the squad added an extra dimension to preparations which has been welcomed by the players.
“Floyd has been really good and sometimes it just takes a different voice to pinpoint areas we need to work on.
“He was asking us what we need to do and kept going over and over that aspect and drilling it into us.
“He has obviously been around; you can tell he has done stuff,” remarked Jacobsen and the same might be said of himself.
If Scotland have been looking to re-invent themselves through motivational gurus then selection has been conservative and restricted to one change with the recall of Nick De Luca after a late injury withdrawal in Ireland. And, maybe having a totem like De Luca around is what is really needed?
After all, the Edinburgh centre scored his only Test try so far in the corresponding fixture a year ago while in the World Cup warm-up encounter between the teams last August he gained man-of-the-match honours.
One thing the 32 times capped De Luca has never had is a wooden spoon and he is determined to maintain that record.
“Dropping out after aggravating my hamstring in the warm up for the Irish game was one of the toughest calls I’ve ever had to make in rugby.
“It was a really weird feeling, emotional and bizarre but we aren’t where we want to be as a team and I have to try to help change that.
“I do enjoy playing Italy because of the passion they bring,” says De Luca in singling out a particular threat as being the No. 8 and captain, Sergio Parisse.
“Parisse is quality and he is playing well. His aerial threat is something we have looked at and across the board they are physically powerful.
“Italy have matched better teams than us over the past few weeks up until the last half hour and we have to be aware of that.”
Amplifying De Luca’s warning prop Geoff Cross says: “The biggest threat is Parisse. He chases kicks, he carries ball and there are no shortage of other big, brave Italian runners.”
There is, however, one other feature of Parisse’s repertoire which – almost uniquely for a forward – saw him land a drop goal against Scotland at Murrayfield and in a match possibly too close to call it could take a flash of inspiration from a player on either side to decide the outcome at the 73,000 capacity Olympic Stadium.
As always, though, this is a clash targeted by Italy as their most winnable and expressed by scrum half Edoardo Gori, who says: “The second half will be key and we must be at the top of our game in that period.
“We’ve lost all our games so far so we have to show something to the fans as well as to ourselves.
“The best way to approach it is to put them under pressure and get points on the board quickly, when they’re under pressure we then need to put them in a corner and leave them there.
“At the beginning of the Six Nations we had our eyes on this game.”