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Same destination but very different journeys

A sports car and a juggernaut seeking to reach the same destination having set off from diametrically opposed starting points will meet head on at Murrayfield today.

The Scotland squad limber up during yesterday's captain's run at  Murrayfield. Picture: PA
The Scotland squad limber up during yesterday's captain's run at Murrayfield. Picture: PA

That, in effect, was the picture painted by Dean Ryan as Scotland's interim forwards coach contemplated the whereabouts of the two teams who have traditionally battled to avoid bottom spot in the RBS 6 Nations Championship.

The big Englishman was fairly scathing about the extent to which Scotland have sought to cover their deficiencies by avoiding engagement in key areas, while noting that their fortunes have blown with the wind in recent years, their best results being largely weather assisted. Meanwhile, he pointed out that the latest evidence of how much Italy's game has evolved from the stodgy, forward-oriented approach that marked their first decade in annual tournament play was provided as they beat France last Sunday.

"What they've done is find some of their tactical bits off the back," he said of the way Italy have expanded their play. "[Luciano] Orquera is an influential figure in their attacking game, but it's built off the back of a massive set-piece, a pretty static breakdown and then they've got bits of magic playing a little bit wider than they have done.

"If we could get that first bit right then we are up there rivalling anybody, not just Italy. Their game needed to grow from a static base. Our game needed to build a static base to allow a platform and foundation. So we've got similar issues, just the other way around and it will be interesting to see the clash at the weekend.

"However, we have to understand that our front-end game has to be the area of massive improvement. Yes, Scotland have a forward pack and a group recognised in the Premiership and Top 14, but we have to start doing things at international level on our terms and not on any other contributory factors."

He extended his assessment to what has gone on in the professional game where Glasgow Warriors, albeit they have just had their worst Heineken Cup campaign for seven years, are on course to reach the RaboDirect Pro12 play-offs for the third time in the four years of their existence.

"I think Glasgow have shown a greater amount of progress in managing games, controlling the speed of breakdown and their RaboDirect position doesn't lie. Edinburgh have struggled to do that," Ryan observed.

"In international rugby you inherit the behaviours of your club sides. England inherit Leicester, Saracens and Quins and that means you've got a pretty good set-piece, a great defence and you can play some football.

"This isn't my job, but long-term the regions have to buy into the same areas that need to be developed for Scottish rugby, because it's the same people."

In that regard, too, there are clear parallels with today's visitors since the Italians have only recently been able to put two teams into a full-time professional league, one of which, first Aironi and now Zebre, has contributed only peripherally.

The balance of these squads are similar with 11 Glasgow players involved to 13 from Treviso, six Edinburgh players compared with five from Zebre and six Scottish Exiles compared with five Italian Exiles.

What Italy have done in a relatively short period of time since getting into the Pro12 is, then, demonstrates the inaccuracy of another myth regularly trotted out in Scottish rugby circles: that having only two professional teams is insufficient to bring about improvement in the national team's performance.

Italy arrive at Murrayfield today believing they are poised to make a significant breakthrough. Sunday's win was their second in succession over France and means they have now beaten their continental neighbours more often than Scotland have since the championship became a six-team competition, while they have now won their opening fixture three times, something Scotland have done only once.

That may not seem overly significant in itself but the difference it can make has been spectacularly demonstrated by the Welsh, who have won grand slams on three of the four occasions they have won their opening match in the last eight years. Every other time they have failed to finish in the top half of the table.

Should Italy win today it will be the first time they have won three successive matches in this tournament, having claimed their sixth win over Scotland in the in Rome at the end of last season, and would move them above Argentina and Samoa to an all-time high of seventh in the IRB world rankings.

More importantly, it would mean they could even be looking at going clear at the top of the table when they play host to Wales, the other team against whom they have had most success, with two wins and the draw which, their 2007 win at Murrayfield apart, was their best result away from home. As they look for promising omens, they will be aware that was achieved when Scott Johnson, Scotland's caretaker head coach, was in a similar role with Wales.

"We are really confident for sure," Sergio Parisse, their captain, said ahead of their final training session at Murrayfield last night. "Starting with a win against France is a great result, but last week's match is part of the past and we are just looking forward to playing tomorrow against Scotland. We know the Scottish are going to play with a full stadium behind the team so it's going to be another tough match.

"We've started with a good win but in the last 10 years we have often won one match. It was a great win and if we get a good result we can probably have the best Six Nations for an Italian team. We are not favourites tomorrow, we are just coming here to Scotland very humble, trying to play our rugby."

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