Just when it seemed things couldn’t get much worse for Scotland’s rugby team, anotherobstacle has to be overcome when Italy are visited tomorrow.
Of all the grounds on the Six Nations circuit Italy’s is the one where the Scots have had most difficulty managing a try in recent years. In clashes with dear old Johnny-come-lately, whom the SRU didn’t even deign to award caps against until 1996, the Scots haven’t managed to cross the Rome whitewash since 2008.
Little wonder they call it the Eternal City and the stat compares unfavourably with try counts in England (2013), France (2013), Wales (2012) and Ireland (2012).
Such a dearth fits, of course, with a general paucity which has seen Scotland go 323 minutes since Sean Lamont broke the Japanese defence at Murrayfield in the Autumn while it is worrying that at least one try has been conceded in each of the last 18 Six Nations matches. But, hold on! For the first time in five years Scotland are on course to field the same stand-off throughout a Six Nations Championship.
Can familiarity, and in an unchanged back-line on this occasion, too, finally breed some contentment? That would be a start . . .
Duncan Weir also finished the Autumn Test campaign in the pivotal position and for Scotland to mount a revival will surely mean authority being exerted behind the scrum.
The only way to achieve that is consistency of selection while Weir would benefit more than anyone from supply lines being restored after a line-out that could be charitably described as “sloppy” mis-fired against both Ireland and England.
The restoration of Scott Lawson at hooker with responsibility for throwing in should help and Weir is developing the type of all-round game that can flourish given half a chance.
Last Autumn he came off the bench against South Africa – five of his ten caps have been from the stand-bys – and helped shore up the overall performance as well as coming closest to scoring in a dark blue jersey. Moving on, interim coach Scott Johnson went into the last encounter praising Weir’s ability to snipe ball in hand as well as turn defences through accurate kicking.
It is clear, though, that to perform the latter task he needs time and space that can only be provided by the pack and if it comes Weir, on his first-ever visit to Rome, will be ready.
“I have never been under so much pressure as in the England game. Sources of possession were limited and England were pretty much camped in our half the whole of the second half,” he said this week.
“It is about learning very quickly. We are an ambitious squad. I believe in players’ abilities and we know that was way under par that performance. It is about putting it right.”
Responding to remarks by Johnson that the position needs character and personality, Weir says: “It is easy to boss the game through kicking but it is also about barking at your forwards all day and demanding communication with outside backs.
“You need them to tell you where the space is . . . what they see in front.
“At No.10 (stand-off) you have a lot of decisions to make, a lot of scanning to do: the speed of ball; back field coverage; who is the opposing man in front of you, what have you got outside you.
“It’s about doing all this on the hoof and being a wee bit sharper but getting guys round about taking the heat off by communicating.
“Three or four weeks in camp and we are gelling a wee bit better. We should know our roles and if boys don’t it’s my job to tell them. Hopefully with a good win in Rome we can (then) write the script more positively.”
Former captain Mike Blair, whose regular half back partner, Phil Godman, was the last Scottish stand-off to play through a Six Nations, believes Weir will be a key man. “It’s how clinical Scotland are that will determine the result. Last year at Murrayfield they were, and won comfortably,” said Blair.
“I’d see a key tactic as exposing the Italian front five with Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Lamont working around Duncan Weir on inside balls. Get the phases going and then on phase seven or eight, once fatigue starts to set in, hit them with the pace.”
In what amounts to an echo, Weir says: “It is about making sure we’re punishing teams when we get an attacking opportunity. That final pass or final last contact before scoring – it has to be more crisp.
“I feel comfortable (that) if we do that and execute we will be alright. Quicker ball builds from set piece as well and people knowing their roles on kick return and other sources of possession. We have been ironing out the creases (but) rugby does not go to plan all the time, it is about how you react in different situations.
“As a team (against England) we were frustrated we couldn’t string a few more phases together. We had a game plan of taking territory early doors. I had a game plan to kick or run.
“If I had known that was all the ball we were going to have all day I might have changed it and run a bit more. We had a game plan to steal territory and put pressure on them. It just didn’t go to plan on the day.”
If Weir’s ten caps have been a split between walk-ons and bench shifts, that pales in comparison to Scott Lawson whose 40 caps include 28 as a sub with only two starts in the Six Nations. Now opportunity knocks and the one-time Edinburgh Under-18 player currently with Newcastle is determined to take it, displaying an attitude others would do well to emulate.
Says Lawson: “I’ve been very patient in the last two to four years and it was frustrating not to be involved in the first game of the championship. Now I’m starting, so things can change quickly. Consistency and maturity was not deemed to be there by the coaches but now I am bang on, helped by the new regime at Newcastle.”
It is hard to see Scotland suddenly getting back on the horse but in a dog-fight – expect nothing else – they might just show a greater desire on this occasion. The alternative might mean an eruption of resentment among tartan followers that would rival Pompei; let’s hope not.