THIS is the decider. Scotland still have to play France next weekend, but Saturday’s match against Italy at Murrayfield will surely be the one that determines whether this Six Nations is deemed a relative success or an abject failure for Gregor Townsend’s side.
Win against the Italians, and Scotland will at least have got back on the right track before heading to Paris for the rearranged round-three game. Lose, and all the good work in the win against England, and even the many positive aspects of the ensuing defeats by Wales and Ireland, will have counted for nothing.
It will be far from the first time that the Italian fixture has been the defining match of the Championship for Scotland. However, while it often determines which of the two countries ends up with the Wooden Spoon, that is not the case this time, as Italy’s four defeats have produced zero points and thus already ensured that they will finish bottom.
Yet although Scotland have escaped that ignominious fate thanks to their win against England and losing bonuses against Wales and Ireland, a defeat by Italy is still surely unthinkable. The fact that there are only six days between the Ireland game and Saturday’s match is a mild hindrance to preparations, according to Jamie Ritchie, and the Edinburgh flanker expects the Italians to try to get off to a flying start. But he insisted that provided Scotland begin well too – something that they signally failed to do against Ireland – they can recover from the disappointment of the Ireland game and get their Six Nations campaign back on track.
“With it being a short turnaround we haven’t got as much time to prepare for what they’re coming with,” Ritchie said. “But our foundations are in place to build upon, and that will be the most important thing come the weekend.
“Italy always target the game against us as a big one, so I think they’ll be coming out all guns blazing. They’re always a threat, so for us it’s a massive opportunity to show we can get out in front earlier and hopefully that will lead on to a win.”
Like any professional side, Italy certainly present a physical challenge, although the description of them as “always a threat” has not really been borne out by their results to date. They lost by 50 points to 10 to France in their opening fixture, conceded 41 then 48 points to England and Ireland respectively, then last week lost another 48 points as Grand Slam hopefuls Wales swatted them aside.
So it could be argued that Scotland not only need to win, but win well, to regain some of the credibility they lost in losing to the Welsh and Irish. However, Ritchie does not think the team are under any pressure to run up a big score, and believes that a simple win will set them up well for the more daunting challenge of France next week in Paris.
“I don’t think the fact that they’ve had a certain amount of points scored against them creates pressure for us. The only pressure that will come from that is they’ll be looking to get something out of this tournament.
“So they’ll see this game as an opportunity to come at us. That is the only pressure that will come from the situation. We’ll just be looking to win the game, as we do every week.
“We’ve still got two games left, so there’s nothing to say we can’t finish at the higher end of the table. Yeah we’ve had a couple of close results but we’ve still taken a couple of bonus points from those games.
“If we win these next two games, that could be vital. There’s no reason why we can’t win these next two games and get back on track.”
If Scotland do beat Italy and France to add to their historic win at Twickenham, it would go down, statistically at least, as one of their better tournament performances. Nonetheless, Ritchie believes that the ability of the squad means that a three-out-of-five win record has to be seen as an under-achievement.
“I think it will still be a missed opportunity in the last two games,” he concluded. “But you can’t look back, you can only look forward. These games are gone: you can’t get them back now. So it’s on to the next two.”