Italy v Scotland: Gregor Townsend warns of ‘massive threat’ from hosts

Head coach also explains decision to leave Ben White out of the matchday 23 for the trip to Rome

Scotland v Italy
Italy had a lot to offer in attack against Scotland at Murrayfield last year, including this move in which Pierre Bruno tried to evade Duhan van der Merwe. Image: © Craig Watson. www.craigwatson.co.uk

ON the face of it, Saturday’s match in the Stadio Olimpico will be plain sailing for Scotland, who have won their last 13 games against the Italians in a run that stretches all the way back to the 2015 Six Nations. But that black and white statistic conceals a more complex and colourful picture, and Gregor Townsend, for one, is taking nothing for granted,

Townsend has yet to suffer defeat at the hands of Italy as Scotland’s head coach, but he does have experience from his playing days of how quickly things can go wrong for a visiting team once the Italians get up a head of steam. For example, he played in the 1998 loss in Treviso, a result which spelled the end for the coaching team of Richie Dixon and David Johnston. 

Two years later he was in the team that travelled to Rome for the first-ever fixture in the Six Nations. Scotland went there as the last Five Nations champions, but the wheels fell off in the opening minutes with an injury to captain John Leslie, and long before the end of the game the visitors were a well-beaten side.


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A lot has changed since then, of course, or even since that last defeat in the series nine years ago. Scotland have far more firepower in attack, and more defensive solidity too.

But even then, Italy have come close to pulling off an upset. That was certainly the case last year at Murrayfield, when they were pressing hard on the Scots line in search of what would have been the winning score only for Blair Kinghorn to break away and complete his hat-trick.

All of which explains the caution expressed by Townsend earlier today (Thursday) when, before flying out to Rome with his squad, he sat down with the media to analyse the Italian threat.  

“Italy are a massive threat for any side. Chatting to the Italian staff over the years, this is the game they have targeted. I think they used to get a higher win bonus for beating Scotland than other teams.

“They’ve been improving for some time. They were a post away from beating France in France – not many teams have done that over the last few years.

“And they were, I suppose, a knock-on away from beating us at Murrayfield last year. Similar in the games against Ireland and France in last year’s Six Nations. The year before they won in Wales. 

“This is a team that’s been very competitive against every opposition in the Six Nations. They’ve brought a more pragmatic style to the open rugby they played last year, but they still have that ambition and skill to attack in the wide channels. Over the last couple of years they’ve also selected fit players – you see it from their front row – that don’t tire, which maybe wouldn’t have been the case a few years previously with Italian teams.

Each game is different, but I think our team has improved physically and mentally over the last few years, so those tricky situations we’ve had in a number of those games, we’ve managed to get through. Some of them have been very close, like last year. 

“We’ve got to lean on that, but we’ve also got to lean on the experiences we’ve had this season of staying strong together in those tough moments. We’ve got some players that can make things happen in terms of getting from losing positions into scoring seven points pretty quickly.”

 

 

Townsend also hopes that what could be a record number of Scotland supporters at the match will make their present felt. The Stadio Olimpico is a 70,000-plus sell-out for the game, and the coach wants the visiting contingent to make their present felt in the way that a bumper French crowd did at Murrayfield last month.

“It’s a sell-out and they’ve not had a sell-out for a number of years – I don’t think they got one for England,” he continued. “It shows the public feel that this could be a game they can win.

“It’s a great venue, and I know a lot of Scots are going out there too, so that helps. I know when you flip it round with the amount of French who came to our game at Murrayfield, we’ll feel there’s a similar atmosphere there on Saturday. 

“Last time they reckon it was close to 12,000 [Scots in Rome at the 2022 match]. Maybe people have now told their friends to come out and we might get close to 15,000, which would be brilliant.

“It’s been a home from home a little bit for our supporters out of all the away venues. We can hear the Scotland fans in Rome more than at the other stadiums.

“Part of that has been because the games haven’t been sold out. Now they will be competing with more and more Italian supporters this weekend, so it should be a cracking atmosphere.”

Of the three changes Townsend has made to his starting line-up, one – Cameron Redpath for Sione Tuipulotu – was necessitated by injury and another – Andy Christie for Jamie Ritchie – was widely predicted. But the coach’s decision to give George Horne his first start in five years and leave Ben White out of the squad altogether, with Ali Price coming on to the bench, was a distinct surprise.

“We feel Ben needs a week to recharge,” he explained. “He’s still working – he did a session yesterday – but the focus for him is recovery. 

“He’s had a couple of injuries too. He was doubtful for the Wales game with a shoulder that he injured on the Sunday night playing for too long. 

“The way he trains too – he puts everything into it, like all our 9s. We would have had a decision to make – it was ‘okay Ben, we feel you need to have a recharge week’, but we also need the team to train together. We don’t have a lot of training sessions.

“So that was the decision we made. And the confidence that we have in the other two – the other two have played for us over the last five years. Ali has been a starter for us and for the Lions, George has been excellent off the bench but gets this opportunity to start. So we’d hope next week that all three nines are fit and available and Ben is in a really good position to have a full training week.” 

 

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About Stuart Bathgate 1387 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.