IT is the end of the Six Nations Championship, and the end of an era too with the impending departure of Vern Cotter, but Scotland can prove today that it is by no means the end of the road for this group of players.
If they beat Italy well and come second in the final table, they will both provide proof of progress under Cotter, and offer firm evidence to suggest that they can keep on improving.
To do that, of course, they will have to put last week’s nightmare against England out of their minds, and rekindle the spirit of self-belief that has seen them defeat Ireland and Wales, and stay in contention to pick up a losing bonus point at the end of a punishing match in Paris. The self-discipline will need to return too, after it well nigh evaporated at Twickenham – which means not only avoiding penalties, but also maintaining a confidence in the systems, above all in defence, that have worked so effectively for most of this campaign. And, as ever against the Italians, patience will be a cardinal virtue.
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Italy’s previous matches have shown that you can prevail against them over the course of the 80 minutes, but they have also demonstrated that you cannot expect to get on top of them from the opening exchanges. Assistant coach Nathan Hines, for one, is confident that the squad are in the right shape to get back to their best. “What I’ve seen from the guys this week is a little bit more resolve and determination,” he said yesterday. “They’ve certainly asked more questions of themselves than maybe they once did.
‘More importantly, they’re giving themselves honest answers. That’s the good thing about this team, they can question themselves, and give themselves a good starting point for the next game.
“The starting point this week is to fix what happened at the weekend. This week we’ve been asking: What did we do wrong? How do we get better?”
Italy have yet to pick up a point this year, and, for all the attention-grabbing tactical innovations of new coach Conor O’Shea, they have not made any real improvement compared to their opponents in the Six Nations. Having said that, they won on their last visit to Murrayfield, and are more confident about taking on Scotland than they are any of the other teams in the competition.
For their part, the Scots not only have a history of underperforming against the Italians – Hines himself was part of the team that lost 37-17 at home in 2007 – they have also lost a bit of their shape on the last day of the competition in each of the past two years. Hines is sure his team have learned from what wrong in 2015 and 2016.
“I don’t think it’s to do with the mind wandering. Last year Ireland did a really good job on us. We had a six-day turnaround, they kept the ball for the first 10 minutes of play, we got it back – and gave it right back to them.
“That doesn’t help. It took us a half to figure out how to play. The year before, the Ireland game, they needed a bonus point and we just didn’t play very well, did we?
“It’s a different team. We’re physically and mentally in a better place.The guys are more attuned to doing what they need to do this weekend, not worrying about what happened.
Italian captain Sergio Parisse acknowledged Scotland have enjoyed a far better campaign than his side, and suggested the problems Italy suffer have their roots further down than the national team.
“If the game only lasted 40 minutes we would have beaten Wales and England.
“The reason we do things pretty well for 40 minutes and not 80 is connected to the habits we have as individuals.
“Most of the squad play for Zebre or Treviso and they are struggling in the second half the same as us.”