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Murrayfield test will determine if Italians have reached watershed

Scotland's management today name the team who have the task of staying in touch with European rugby's elite.

Italy dumped France for the second successive time in a home fixture. Picture: Reuters
Italy dumped France for the second successive time in a home fixture. Picture: Reuters

Following the opening weekend of the RBS 6 Nations Championship, it is not over-stating the case to place their meeting with Italy in that context. Every other team in the competition came out of the opening weekend genuinely believing they have the capacity to challenge, if not for the title, then for a place in the top half of the table.

By contrast, Scotland must feel in their hearts that another deeply unhappy few weeks of soul-searching will be under way if they do not manage to repeat the outcome last time Italy visited Murrayfield two years ago and claim their first championship win since that day.

On Sunday, we may have witnessed a watershed moment in championship history with Italy's second successive home win against France, a victory in the opening game which has provide them with the belief they can seriously contend.

That is an important message for the whole world of rugby which, with the FIRA nations – Europe's second tier – now beginning to raise overdue questions about increased access to the top flight, must learn from Italy's rapid advancement, in parallel with that of Argentina.

Back in the very early days of Italy's involvement there were some desperately short-sighted criticisms of bringing them into the championship when they failed, immediately, to follow up on their defeat of then champions Scotland in their first match.

I remember pointing towards the French experience some 90 years earlier when they were whitewashed in their first campaign in 1910 then, after similarly beating Scotland when playing hosts to them for the first time, did not win again until the first post-war campaign, when they won in Dublin in 1920.

Not until 1954 did France even share the title and it was a further five years, almost a full half-century after they were introduced, before the nation that has since claimed more titles than any other, won it outright for the first time. Italy have accrued 10 wins in 13 years and, with two further home matches to come this season, will be eyeing Saturday's match predatorily, knowing that victory over Scotland could put them into title contention.

That French breakthrough year of 1954, meanwhile, takes on much darker significance for Scottish rugby supporters because that was the last time their team suffered back-to-back championship "whitewashes".

If it seems pessimistic to be raising that prospect after just one match, we should remember that pre-tournament talk about the importance of the opening game in this short, sharp competition, was as prevalent in Scotland as anywhere else. The transformation in the firepower available to Scotland was the only real encouragement as Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland combined for the tries while Tim Visser also showed flickers of the running threat that has made him one of the most feared opponents in the European club game.

There are ways that might even be enhanced, since moving Hogg to outside centre and Maitland to full-back would offer both greater scope to get involved.

Longer term – and by that the suggestion would be within months rather than years – shifting Hogg to the troublesome stand-off position where the 20-year-old used to play, could yet prove the best option of all.

Right now, however, management must decide whether they continue to seek to persuade Ruaridh Jackson, who has arguably the widest skill-set among the current contenders, that he is good enough for Test level.

The Glasgow Warrior has had his moments, but for all that he continues to seek to emit the right body language, only someone blessed with unshakable self-belief could have kept the demons at bay as he shifted between Glasgow Warriors' starting XV and bench, Dundee HSFP and the Test arena in the course of this season.

That, in turn, invites consideration of Duncan Weir, preferred to Jackson for the opening match of the RaboDirect Pro12 season but just three more appearances since. Lack of match practice is a problem, but he remains the Scottish playmaker who best fits that description of having a deep-seated assurance that lets him recover rapidly from the mistakes that are inevitably part of the game for such a young and still comparatively inexperienced player. Yet all that analysis of the options behind the scrum is rendered irrelevant without an improved platform on which to perform. The gain-line battle was largely dominated by England at Twickenham on Saturday whereas in Rome the Italians prevented their more vaunted opponents from doing the same thing for long periods and reaped the rewards.

Since Chris Fusaro was not among the 13 called into the squad, the only option, if Al Strokosch is out, to sticking with the back row that played the remaining 67 minutes after his departure, is to bring in Rob Harley. He may not be a specialist openside, but his muscular work-rate in the role in recent weeks, allied to that of Brown, could be a useful mix.

The knocks suffered by Dave Denton and Johnnie Beattie, whose form was highly encouraging, may strengthen the case for the introduction of Harley's fresh legs, just as that suffered by Dougie Hall could make it easier to recall Ross Ford to the No.2 shirt, albeit the Glasgow Warriors hooker was by no means the worst Scot afield.

Beyond that those who do not believe in coincidences will have noted that Jim Hamilton is poised to reach double figures for successive defeats when in the starting line-up while Al Kellock, the Glasgow Warriors captain, has the best record of any squad member when he gets that opportunity.

Time, perhaps, for a wee cultural lesson for our multi-cultural management by noting that it was one of the greatest Scots of all who penned the message that facts are chiels that winna ding.

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