Paterson the general fired by heat of battle

Italy's macho approach can bring best out of Scotland
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The Independent Online

Talking up the opposition is a sporting tactic as old as the hills and, since Rome has got seven of them, that must be why every team visiting Italy in the Six Nations seems unusually daunted at the prospect. Where Sir Clive Woodward led at the outset of this season's championship, Scotland's captain, Chris Paterson, is happy to follow.

"Italy in Rome is the most physical battle you'll get in the Six Nations," said Paterson, echoing Woodward's previous prognosis. It is not only Pater-son's skilful passes, as featured in the BBC's television advert-ising campaign, which are prone to a spot of spin.

And wait, there's more. Paterson believes the Italians on home turf could present a physical challenge even greater than the Scots faced from England at Murrayfield last week. This, surely, is stretching credulity wider than the Tiber. "The size of the Italians determines the way they play," he said. "Even Cristian Stoica in the centres is over 100kg. In the four years I've been playing them, they've always been physically strong."

Well, yes, Chris, but what about the rest of Italy's backs, four of whom weighed in for the one-sided 25-0 defeat by France last week at a less-than-heavyweight 85kg? Man-mountains they are not. This is also the same Italy who have failed to score a try in their two matches this year, having lost their opening match to Woodward's trembling England 50-9 at the Stadio Flaminio. Hardly the "very good attacking team", as Paterson describes them.

We must deduce that, if truth is occasionally a casualty of rugby's phoney war, it is better instead to concentrate on Paterson's emergence as a general where it counts, on the field, even as he adjusts to a couple of major developments. At the still-tender age of 25 he is not only settling in as skipper, but also as a relatively inexperienced fly-half under the new coaching order of Matt Williams. If the Scots are treating the journey across the Alps as the most dangerous since Hannibal's, the reasons probably lie close to home. Since the World Cup they have lost a handful of experienced backs and their opening Six Nations matches, 23-10 to Wales and, last weekend, 35-13 to the English.

Paterson was speaking after a morning's kicking practice at Murrayfield on Friday. Piling up the points is another of his responsibilities, and the teetotal Borderer is having no trouble focusing on the posts. He has missed once in his last 17 place-kicks, going back to the World Cup defeat by France. The rest of the past week has been spent training in Stirling, and reflecting on a concession of the Calcutta Cup that might once have prompted national mourning, but which has been received in Scotland in positive terms.

"There has been a huge transition under Matt," said Paterson. "We worked hard on it around the new year and have since been adding to it. We know we're far from where we want to be, but there was some indication of how we've moved forward against England.

"We showed we can physically compete with England. Not taking anything away from them, but the majority of their scores came from our mistakes which, in a roundabout way, shows that we defended reasonably well, and all their attacking flair was contained to a reasonable extent. That is now the benchmark, and we can't afford to go below that from now on."

The sight of Williams punching the air in delight as Simon Danielli scored Scotland's try went down well with home supporters. "Matt's a passionate guy," said Paterson. "Make no mistake, he's here to win, and he's here to make a difference. To see him doing that, for the fans, is brilliant. And I can tell you, from someone who knows him, it is heartfelt, it's not putting a face on anything.

"Before we played Wales, I found myself concentrating more on the rest of the team than I did myself. I realised you also need to be thinking about what you're doing, and last Saturday was a joy to be involved with, because of the passion shown by every member of the team; the determination and the courage.

"There's a lot of young guys, and to see them standing up to England was quite heart-warming - giving as good as they got physically - and it gave us the self-belief that we can compete. We made mistakes, but to captain that team was an absolute pleasure."

Paterson made his name as a fly-half for his club, Gala. Yet in his first four years in the Scotland squad under Williams's predecessor, Ian McGeechan, he was given only two chances in his preferred position - both of them non-cap matches, against East Coast/Poverty Bay in New Zealand in 2000, and against the Barbarians last May. "I'm delighted to be there now," Paterson said. "I can't really see any downside to it. You're obviously far more involved in the game, and have more decisions to make."

He has featured in each of the Scots' last 28 Tests; 41 out of the last 43. The sequence began soon after the infamous defeat in Italy, in February 2000. Perhaps this as much as anything explains why - despite Paterson's personal record of four wins in four over the Azzurri - the caution remains. "Two years ago we won in Rome," he said, "and that was one of the hardest games I've played in, against a side who were well behind where they are now. That gives you an indication of how difficult it will be."