For all the talk emanating from in and around the Scotland camp, you could be forgiven for thinking Saturday’s match against Italy in Rome is just another Six Nations encounter. It emphatically is not, and at least assistant coach Mike Blair had the honesty to admit that it is a must-win game.

It falls into that category for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that it will define the future of Gregor Townsend’s tenure of his position as head coach. Win and maybe, just maybe, Scotland can finish the tournament on a high with winning performances against France and Wales.

Lose to Italy and the unease being felt in many quarters about Townsend’ s managership will become a lot more than an open secret. Indeed I would expect the clamour for him to go to start just seconds after the final whistle and though the blazers at Murrayfield will deny it till they are blue in the face, they will fear losing the stands and the haemorrhaging of money that goes with such a loss of fan confidence.

I have enjoyed much of the way that Scotland have played under Vern Cotter and now Townsend, but I recognise the high risks involved in playing that kind of fast expansive game, and on numerous occasions I have just wished for some safety first, ball-up-the-jumper stuff that England and Ireland do so well.

The very least that Scotland must do on Saturday is win, but the long-suffering Scottish fans will want to see the team play well and get a bonus-point victory. Scotland are perfectly capable of scoring the necessary four tries as they have not become a poor team overnight, though with hindsight the simultaneous departures of Greig Laidlaw, John Barclay and Tommy Seymour, followed by the Finn Russell debacle, have clearly been too much of a loss from the squad’s strength in depth.


Townsend cannot be blamed for the first three players deciding to retire from international duty – personally I’d have a rule where if you play for your club, you must play for your country – but he is at least partly to blame for the Russell fiasco. Therefore he must prove his approach has been right by selecting the correct 23 men and the appropriate tactics to thump Italy.

It is that latter aspect that worries me because I don’t know if Townsend can vary the way that Scotland play sufficiently enough to ensure victory on Saturday against an Italian team who will be fired up in their bid to avoid the Wooden Spoon.

Scotland have the backs to win any match but the game will be won or lost, as always, up front and personal. The individual battles in the scrums, line outs and, above all, at the breakdown will determine who wins on Saturday. The chief tactic must be to get a huge game from all the pack because we know that Italy are strong in the tight and unpredictable in the loose.

Scotland also need to see a captain’s performance from Stuart Hogg or else his tenure of office may perish along with that of the head coach. It really is that big a game on Saturday, and bounding back from the defeat by England with an impressive performance in Rome would set us up for the remainder of the tournament.

Defeat really is unthinkable, not least because at the time of writing, Scotland lie in ninth position in the world rankings and if we do not improve, we will be in Band Three when the 2023 World Cup draw takes place at the end of the year.

Yes, I know it’s insane for World Rugby to have the 2023 pools decided in 2020, but them’s the rules, as Her Majesty said to Harry.


We simply have to improve in the rankings and at least get into eighth, leapfrogging Japan. And if you look at the current rankings, Argentina are only just behind us and because of the way the rankings work, we could well slip down to 10th place if we do not beat 13th-ranked Italy.

Scotland play both Argentina and Japan in the Autumn Tests, so we would get a second chance to overhaul the latter and stay ahead of the former, but would it not be better to get further up the table now and not have to count on the Autumn Tests in which, don’t forget we will play New Zealand last?

The thought of Scotland having to play two of the first-tier teams in our pool in 2023 is enough to make you think better about reserving your holidays for France in September and October of that year. I could see us fail to make the top three in our pool with all the consequences that would bring.

That ranking problem is just one major reason why Scotland must do more than just turn up in Rome on Saturday. Say after me –

We. Must. Win.