WHEN you lose a game badly there is always a temptation to retreat into your shell on your next outing: to simplify things, minimise risk and rely on tried and trusted tactics. Similarly, when your list of injured, ill and otherwise unavailable players begins to grow to an alarming length, that over-cautious, introverted approach can become ever more appealing.

But if Scotland are to return to winning ways against Italy on Saturday after conceding six tries in a heavy defeat by France, it is a temptation they should resist and an appeal they should ignore. Going back to basics and keeping it simple in Rome will only play into the home team’s hands, increasing the possibility of a shock upset.

Fortunately, Gregor Townsend has invariably avoided going down an over-conservative route, whether it be in selection or in tactics. Certainly, if last year’s match against Italy is a guide, he is more likely to take adventurous options rather than timorous ones.

The prime problem in 2021 was the absence of Finn Russell because of injury. Without their principal playmaker, some teams would simply select safety-first back-up. Instead, Townsend named full-back Stuart Hogg at 10, and was rewarded with an assertive performance by Scotland which pinned the Italians back and produced a commanding 52-10 victory.

Russell was rested by Racing 92 two days ago and all being well will again start in Rome. But elsewhere in the back division and up front too, Townsend’s problems are beginning to mount.

In the pack, Rory Sutherland, Jonny Gray and Jamie Ritchie have already been ruled out of the rest of the Championship. Nick Haining is out of the trip to Rome because of a shoulder injury, Hamish Watson is in doubt after missing the France match after a positive Covid test, and Matt Fagerson seems to be touch and go because of a foot injury. Oli Kebble, meanwhile, suffered a suspected broken nose in Glasgow’s defeat by the Scarlets on Saturday night, meaning he is unlikely to feature against Italy either. 

Among the fringe players, tighthead prop Javan Sebastian pulled out of the Scarlets line-up before the Warriors match for an unspecified reason. It would have been his first start of the season, so even if he is passed fit he is unlikely to be deemed ready to start a Test, but it does further decrease Townsend’s front-row options.

Behind the scrum, the main concern is the possible absence of Duhan van der Merwe. The winger was sent off while playing for Worcester Warriors against London Irish at the weekend after a fend to the face of Kyle Rowe, and unless the red card is rescinded in a disciplinary hearing in the next day or two he will be suspended for the next game or two.

If that transpires, Rowe himself could be the beneficiary. The uncapped winger was named in Townsend’s wider squad before the start of the Six Nations and has certainly been in good enough form recently.

Alternatively, Blair Kinghorn could be promoted from the bench to start on one wing with his Edinburgh team-mate Darcy Graham keeping his place on the other. Kinghorn was in outstanding form in Friday night’s rout of Connacht, albeit in his now preferred position of stand-off, and his speed and offloading ability in particular should cause Italy all sorts of problems. The art of successful squad-building is in part about getting your best players on to the park at the same time, and a Scotland back division which includes Hogg, Russell and Kinghorn should have far too much creativity for Italy. 

Speaking of Kinghorn, there will surely come a time when Townsend chooses to use him alongside Russell as a 10-12 axis. Saturday may not be that time given the selection problems elsewhere, especially as Kinghorn is still coming to terms with some of the finer aspects of his new position. But it would be a fascinating experiment nonetheless, with an Autumn Test probably the obvious situation in which to conduct it. 

Granted, if either or both had an off day, a certain amount of confusion would result. But the chance that things might go wrong is no reason not to try them.

Faced with a similar decision in the back row before the France game, Townsend chose to play Rory Darge and Watson together before the latter had to withdraw. Presuming the Edinburgh openside is able to play this time round, it is worth picking the pair in tandem again, especially as the injury to Haining and the potential absence of Fagerson cut down on other more orthodox back-row options.  

Scotland have scraped to unconvincing wins over Italy in the past by playing a very limited game - but they have also lost in the same fashion. If they play to their strengths they can win convincingly, and that means selecting the most gifted ball-players and telling them to go out and express themselves.