SCOTLAND captain Stuart Hogg believes that head coach Gregor Townsend is under no more pressure than usually comes with the territory when in charge of an international rugby team, despite an unprecedented level of criticism in recent weeks being directed towards his tactics, team selection and man-management style.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that Townsend has been universally castigated for his role in various set-backs, including Scotland’s World Cup flop, the Finn Russell walk-out and the team’s two losses so far in the Six Nations, however these issues have led to doubts being widely expressed about his suitability to the job.
It has been suggested that the coach could be relieved of his position immediately if his team come up short in Rome this weekend, although it is highly unlikely that the axe will fall until after the final two matches of the campaign against France and Wales have been played out.
However, Hogg believes that the players rather than the coach should carry the can for the team’s failure to kick-on from being perennial Six Nations strugglers.
“I don’t think Gregor is under pressure,” insisted Hogg, during the eve of match press conference at the Stadio Olimpico. “I think he is a terrific coach. It is us [the players] that play the game at the end of the day. We’ve been in a position a few times to win Test matches and we’ve let some go.
“There are always areas to work on. The Ireland game, for instance, we talked about our finish zone. We are getting the tools to be successful we’re just not clicking at times and nailing every opportunity. You might get six or seven opportunities in a game and you have to make the most of every single one. At times we haven’t and that’s the reason we’re not winning Test matches.
“The main thing is we concentrate on ourselves, nail our detail in attack and be rock solid in defence,” he added. “We need to shut down the Italians. We’re coming off the back of two defeats, we know there’s a lot on the line tomorrow – but we believe we can get a result. It’s a huge challenge for us but one we’re looking forward to.
“We have worked incredibly hard over the past few weeks. The boys have had a good couple of sessions in the fallow week last week and we have been taking small steps to ensure we get this victory.
“We will front up and really take the game to the Italians as that is what this game demands. We have an opportunity to express ourselves out there, have some fun – stick a Scotland jersey on again and show what it really means to play for Scotland.
“The only pressure is the pressure we put on ourselves. We believe in our game plan, our individual ability and our collective ability to make sure that we win Test matches. The only pressure is the stuff that come from us. Whatever comes from out-with us is irrelevant.”
Learning on the job
Hogg has had a turbulent start to his tenure as Scotland captain, with the fall-out of the Russell affair and two championship losses being compounded by a couple of costly individual errors against Ireland and England – but he says his morale is undented and his hunger to lead the side is undiminished. In fact, those set-backs have served to drive up his motivation levels.
“A defeat in a Scotland jersey hurts for everybody, but in the last couple of weeks I have taken it a little bit more personally being captain,” he acknowledged. “That is because I care – because I want to make a difference – because I want boys to be able to play with some freedom so that we can express ourselves as a team.
“Everything is not going to go our way all the time, but I believe the mood in camp now is a positive one and long may that continue.
“I am always looking to improve and have had numerous conversations with people involved in Scottish rugby to get the best out of me and the best out of the players. Nobody is ever the complete rugby player. Nobody is the complete captain, but I am willing to learn as I want to make a difference.
“I will be doing what I normally do [this weekend], going out to express myself and have some fun. Everybody concentrates on the negatives nowadays, rather than the positives that happened in the game. I believe I’ve done a lot of good stuff in the past couple of weeks as well.
“I’m a confident player. I believe in my ability. I know that, on my day, I can play some good rugby. I’m looking forward to doing that tomorrow.”
Sun on their backs
With the sun shining, and the wind nothing more than a gentle breeze, Rome this weekend could hardly be further removed from the conditions two weeks ago when Scotland battled against England in appalling conditions at Murrayfield – which is just the way Hogg likes it.
“We want to play a fast, expansive brand of rugby with the exciting talent we have in the squad. Against England, that was taken away from us by the weather. This week we will have a dry ball,” he said.
“But we won’t get too carried away, we need to be smart. I said to the boys during the week that we need to apply as much pressure on Italy as we possibly can. So we do want to play but there’s a time and a place.
“We need to get the ball in front of the forwards and make sure they’re using their energy in the right areas of the field.
“We need a clinical performance. We respect our opponents – but believe in our ability. If we nail down the detail, we give ourselves every chance of winning.
“The Italians are going to come with a huge number of threats up front and some quality backs – so defence is where this game is going to be won. We’ve got to front up and be physical because then we give ourselves every opportunity.
“They are the highest offloading team in the competition so far and a large majority of those offloads come in the wide channels, the 15metre channels. As a back three and backline we have to be spot on in our defence and make sure we don’t allow these offloads to happen because they’re very, very dangerous when they come off.”