SCOTLAND were distinctly underwhelming the last time they played Italy, losing 41-20 at Scotstoun in April’s Six Nations match. So when the teams meet again tomorrow in the first match of the Rugby World Cup European qualifying tournament, the Italians will be strong favourites, especially as they are hosts for the competition.

But Helen Nelson, for one, believes things can be different this time. If her team had played to their best five months ago, she believes, they might go into this fixture in a downbeat frame of mind. But, as they were so far short of their optimal form, Nelson is confident that, provided they do themselves justice, they can upset the odds this time.

“The last time we played them, our set piece wasn’t good enough,” she says. “We didn’t win a lot of lineouts and the quality of ball from scrums wasn’t great.

“We had a really honest review after that game and we said that wasn’t us and we didn’t play how we want to play. So we know that if we’re all guns blazing and really on form we’ll beat Italy, without a doubt. We know we’ve got a big job to do, but we’re really excited for it.”

The absence of three key forwards that day had a lot of bearing on the outcome. Jade Konkel and Sarah Bonar missed all of the Six Nations due to work commitments, while captain Rachel Malcolm played only in the opening minutes of the Championship before being sidelined by against England. The return of that trio has been a big boost to the squad’s morale, not just because of their individual skills but because of the leadership they show.

And that leadership will be required, all right, in a round-robin tournament which also features Spain and Ireland, with the winners qualifying for next year’s finals in New Zealand and the runners-up going into a global repechage. There are just six days between matches, but Malcolm for one believes that is to Scotland’s advantage.

“I think the six-day turnarounds are actually a positive for us,” she argues. “We pride ourselves on being a team that plays fit and fast rugby

“We’ve shown on our day when we get the basics right that we can compete with and beat some of the best in the world, but I think where we have let ourselves down is when we haven’t been consistent. We’ve worked tirelessly on our basics both in defence and attack and it stands us in good stead for the tournament.”


(All matches played at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma. All kick-offs UK time.)

Monday 13:

Scotland v Italy 2pm
Spain v Ireland 5pm

Sunday 19:

Italy v Ireland 2pm
Spain v Scotland 5pm

Saturday 25:

Italy v Spain 2pm
Ireland v Scotland 5pm.