DURING his playing career, Mike Blair experienced more lows than highs against Italy in Rome, with a return of four defeats and just one victory from his five visits to the Eternal City between 2004 and 2012 – so the former scrum-half, who was capped 85-times by Scotland, knows just how hard this coming Saturday’s clash against the Azzurri is going to be.
The good news is that head coach Gregor Townsend expects to have all 38 members of his training squad to choose from for this match which is certain to be absolutely pivotal to Scotland’s Six Nations campaign, including winger Darcy Graham, who is back in training after a knee injury ruled him out of the first two rounds of the championship – although there is, of course, still no Finn Russell.
“The first thing is that Italy will want to get their crowd behind them, so they’ll be throwing everything at starting really well,” said Blair who is now one the team’s assistant coaches.
“So, on the back of our good starts against England and Ireland, it’s important that we do the same against Italy – quieten the crowd a little bit. I’ve had lots of different experiences against Italy [as a player], but this group, we think, are in a good position to handle it.”
Scotland have had a nasty habit of throwing away cheap points early on in recent years, so the way they have come out the blocks in their last two outings has, indeed, been highly encouraging. Blair says there has not been a fundamental change in approach here, rather the team have got better at assessing risk.
“We have talked about faster starts a lot, just as we did when things weren’t going that well,” he said.“There seems to be a good composure about the group, perhaps holding onto the ball a little bit more – not trying the offloads – and being a little bit more structured early in the game. That seemed to work for us in the last couple of weeks.
“The shape hasn’t changed that much, but decisions within the shape have meant we’ve been able to build phases.
“It’s not been perfect. Against England, we had a good couple of minutes or so and then let England get back on top of us. So, it’s nowhere near the finished article. But there’s been some good stuff and we want to build on that – it’s going to be really important against Italy.
“There are always conversations about how to do better. Ultimately, the players will take responsibility for how they’ve reacted. They’re the ones dealing with the game situations, making the decisions on the ball. I hope that continues because good starts really lift the spirits and confidence going forward.”
It is a bit like the ‘Whac-a-Mole’ arcade game, however, because no sooner has one problem been bashed into submission than another one pops up elsewhere.
“One of the first we things we said was about that first 20 minute, how we handle the opposition and makes sure we are still in the game going into that last 70-80 minute period, and we feel we’ve done that in the two games but now it’s about getting over that line and taking the next step,” conceded Blair. “It’s a case of winning the game rather than saying: ‘We’ve done well in that first 50-60-70 minutes’.”
Both sides are winless, and the loser here looks a dead-cert to end up with the wooden spoon, and with Townsend under serious scrutiny after Scotland’s failed World Cup campaign and his very public spat with Finn Russell, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“I think it’s a must win,” conceded Blair. “We have shown some positives in the first couple of games but it’s not about how you play, it’s winning games. “We have shown improvement and we need to get one over the line to put some pressure on a really good Italian team. We focus on what we are trying to do. Attack and defence are key points within that. Not worrying about it being a pressure game, but putting our best selves forward for the match against Italy.”
“Italy struggled against Wales a little bit in the first game but you kind of expect that because they’d had just a week together before the game and they had a new coach coming in trying different things,” said Blair. “But I thought they were impressive against France. They didn’t have a great start to the game but, as they built into it, they were impressive. They scored some good tries and put a good French team under pressure.