THERE is a distinct mood of optimism and anticipation about the Scotland camp as they prepare to meet Italy on Saturday. Such a positive spirit might come as a surprise given the team lost 52-10 to England in their first outing in this year’s Women’s Six Nations, but there are sound reasons behind it.

For one thing, losing to England is nothing new, and should therefore provoke no outbreak of sorrowful soul-searching. When you are a semi-professional squad coming up against fully professional opponents, there tends to be only one outcome, and that is what has happened every time the teams have met this century.

In fact, there were elements of that performance in Doncaster, particularly in the second half, from which Bryan Easson’s squad could take encouragement. In particular, their fitness levels stood up well - a factor which could well be crucial in what will be a far closer contest against the Italians at Scotstoun.

And, while no-one in the current squad has personal experience of beating England, several were involved in the 2017 victory over Italy. So Scotland know this is a match they can win. And, having spent months last year preparing for a game against the Italians which in the end was never played, the players feel they are particularly well briefed for this game.

“One of the reasons we’re all so excited to play this game is we were supposed to play them in a World Cup qualifier,” lock forward Louise McMillan explains. “A lot of our preparation at the end of last year was looking towards Italy, so although this is just a Six Nations game, we are so excited because for so long this was the game we would have to win to qualify for the World Cup. 

“Any time we’ve played them it has been a really hard contest. They’ve got some really strong forwards who can move around the park as well. 

“Bryan believes it doesn’t matter who we play against - if we play our game correctly we can beat anyone. And we do believe that as a team: more than ever, this team has got belief.”

Having said that, Easson accepted after the England game that in the first half his players had  “just sat back and waited to see what England were going to bring to us”. But the head coach was pleased by the response of his players to some harsh words at half-time, and McMillan believes that the improved competitiveness after the break can stand the squad in good stead as they look ahead to the Italy game.

“In the first half we maybe didn’t come out as quickly as we’d like to. Last year we didn’t have the ability to turn things round and put  a stop on things. This year we were able to have a chat at half-time, work on things, come out and really have a much better performance in the second half.

“Going into it, we knew that we were probably in the best shape we’d ever been in as a team. We felt that we were the most skilful that we’d ever been stepping on to the park. It’s one of the most prepared I’ve ever felt to play England.

“So our preparation was good, and afterwards we felt really positive, knowing that a lot of the things we’d worked on felt good. And we felt that we had made improvements compared to our performance against the same team last year.”

Normally a back-row forward, McMillan did well enough in her first outing at lock last week to appear sure to be selected there again for what will be her 25th cap on Saturday. Still only 23, she feels that the time has flown by since she was first capped as a teenager.

“It’s a bit strange. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been playing in the shirt for that long, but if you look back it is five years of your life. I got my first cap when I was in my first year of uni and I’ve now graduated.

“I’ve loved all the caps that I’ve got, but a really special one was when we played Spain and one of my closest friends, Mairi McDonald, got her first cap. We’ve trained together since we were 13, 14, 15, so that day when we beat Spain was really special.

“Obviously my first cap was really important to me - it was at Scotstoun and my parents and all my family were there. I’m a West Coast girl, so I felt very fortunate because so many of my family and friends were able to come to it. And I’ve played with my sister [Siobhan, a prop] as well - those caps are really special too.”