SCOTLAND coach Bryan Easson believes that a much-improved set piece will be the key for his team when they take on Italy tomorrow at Scotstoun. 

When the team has done well in the recent past it has often been despite shortcomings in the scrum and lineout, but intensive training over the past few months has brought about a significant improvement in both departments.

Although the home team have lost captain and back-row forward Rachel Malcolm to injury, they are boosted by the return of tighthead prop Megan Kennedy, a formidable scrummager who is also a powerful influence in open play. The selection of Kennedy is one of four personnel changes made by Easson to the side that lost to England in their opening Six Nations match two weeks ago, with Evie Gallagher, Liz Musgrove and Sarah Law also returning to the starting line-up.

Gallagher makes her first start in place of Malcolm, Liz Musgrove is on the right wing instead of Rachel Shankland, and Sarah Law returns at stand-off. Outside centre Hannah Smith is unavailable because of Great Britain Olympics Sevens duty, so Lisa Thomson moves from 12 to 13 and Helen Nelson switches from stand-off to 12 as well as taking over the captaincy. Meanwhile Kennedy replaces the versatile Christine Belisle, who drops to the bench, where Evie Wills and Coreen Grant are in line to win their first caps.

The Italians also lost to England in their opening game, so tomorrow’s contest will decide who finishes second in Pool A and therefore goes through to next week’s third-place play-off. The losers will be in a Wooden Spoon decider against Wales. 

Scotland have won only one of their last ten Tests against the Italians, but Easson insisted that record would have no bearing on this game. 

“None at all,” he said. “We’re in a different place. We’re a different group now. We’re just looking at the progress that we are now making as a group - and the progress Italy are making. We need to kick on.

“We’ve seen that Italy have struggled in the lineout and pinpointed that, while we thought our scrum was in a good place against England. There were two or three scrums where we just needed to be more composed.

“Our set piece has been getting better and we’ve put emphasis on that. I think in the past the set piece has been at about 50 or 60 percent success rate: we’re looking at the high 80s or 90s.

“Set piece and speed in contact is key. The first player to the breakdown has to get over the ball a yard rather than sitting, because we know that Italy like to jackal and hunt at the breakdown. We’ve done a lot of work this week on our speed into contact and the speed of support players at that contact time.”

With Emma Wassell running the lineout, Kennedy’s comeback should go a long way to ensuring that Scotland also have the edge in the scrum. “I thought Christine played really well last week, but she’s in her infancy when it comes to playing tight-head,” Easson said of Belisle, whose previous appearances had been in the back row. “Megan’s got a little more experience there. 

“But it’s not just the scrum, it’s those little things about the field - defence and lineout/maul stuff. Having that experience at 3 makes a big difference. She’s a very good scrummager.”

For a significant number of squad members, the game against England was a first outing at any level since the draw with France in October, but Law has been out for far longer - more than a year, in fact - because of an Achilles injury. Even so, Easson is sure that she will slot smoothly back into the side. 

“One thing you don’t need to worry about is her confidence. She knows her rugby inside out and she’s the one around the squad who has serious rugby knowledge. Sarah is desperate to get going. It’s been a long time since she played and she’ll be fine.”