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Praise of Parisse tempered by a fierce determination

It can be dangerous to read too much into these things, but it was still easy to detect a certain note of frustration in Johnnie Beattie's voice as the Scotland No.8 ran the rule over the man who will be his direct opponent at Murrayfield this afternoon.

Scotland's Johnnie Beattie familiarises himself with an Italian rugby shirt again. Picture: SNS
Scotland's Johnnie Beattie familiarises himself with an Italian rugby shirt again. Picture: SNS

After all, most critics lapse into the lexicon of fawning adulation when they discuss Sergio Parisse, the 92-times-capped Italy captain who has been his country's most celebrated player since he made his debut against New Zealand as an 18-year-old almost 11 years ago. Parisse, by general consensus, is one of the outstanding players of the age, a man about whom no bad things may be said.

In fairness, Beattie did not deviate too far from the orthodoxy, but the praise he offered came with significant qualification – and having been part of a Montpellier side which hammered Parisse's Stade Francais 54-16 just a few weeks ago then he probably felt entitled to discuss the Italian forward without casting metaphorical lotus petals in his path.

"Last time out it went well," said the Scot of that encounter in the French Top 14 Championship. "I'm not going to man mark him around the pitch. I'm just going to do my job."

Shades of motivational psychology there? Was Beattie simply trying to debunk the myth of Parisse as a rugby superman and bring him back down to earth? Perhaps, but there was something close to wry cynicism in his assessment of the 29-year-old's gift for harvesting accolades in every international game he plays.

"Obviously, he is an important component," Beattie offered. "He calls their lineouts and he very much calls things towards him. He has won a number of man of the match awards in the Six Nations on account of calling 80 to 90% of the lineouts to himself. He is a very good ball carrier, but then every back row player in the tournament now is. If Sergio doesn't go forward, there are three or four blokes who can do exactly the same job. He's just a normal bloke. So much responsibility has been placed on him by the Italian side in the past, and he has done very well, but you play against umpteen superstars in every other competition so there is no point in getting het up about him."

In fact, the 27-year-old Scot, was only too happy to elaborate on that point, shifting the attention away from Parisse and focusing instead on Alessandro Zanni, the Treviso flanker who seems to save his best form for Six Nations matches. Zanni was outstanding in Italy's shock win over France in Rome last week, and Beattie's homage came with none of the asterisks he appended to Parisse.

Beattie said: "I remember playing against him a couple of years ago and for me he was the pick of their pack. He is great about the pack, going forward, in the lineout, defensively. He is an all-round player. That's the problem in the back row now. There are so many boys in so many teams who are just really good. It is fiercely competitive everywhere."

As he knows only too well. Beattie did better than earn pass marks on his return from an 18-month international exile at Twickenham last week, but the fact the Scots were badly beaten at the breakdown on their way to a 39-18 defeat did rather take the gloss off the experience a little. Beattie may be known as an open-field player, but he was as frustrated as anyone else in the Scottish camp over the failure of the nitty-gritty part of the game.

"I didn't take too much from it," he said. "Some individuals, like Stuart Hogg, played really well, but as a team we were nowhere near the level that we need to be to win international rugby matches.

"It has been fantastic to be asked to come back. It has been great seeing family and friends and the boys in the squad. But there's no real point in coming back if we then play like that as a team. It's not a nice feeling. All the feelings I had about coming back were lost, which makes it pretty pointless."

While Italy's 23-18 victory over France six days ago reinforced the Azzurris' claim to credibility as a genuine international force, their execrable away record suggests something else. In 33 Six Nations outings away from home since their admission to the six nations fold 13 years ago, the Italians have won just once – their 37-17 triumph at Murrayfield in 2007, which Scotland infamously began by conceding three tries in the opening five minutes.

Beattie, rejuvenated by his own move to France last summer, is fascinated by the apparent lackadaisical approach of French teams on the road. However, he expects no such things from the Italians. "I don't think Italy will be holding anything back. It's Test match rugby after all."

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