Italy v Scotland preview: not just a case of turning up for Townsend’s troops

Visitors need to win comfortably in Rome after a tough few weeks

Hamish Watson returns to the Scotland back-row against Italy tomorrow [Saturday]. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Hamish Watson returns to the Scotland back-row against Italy tomorrow [Saturday]. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

IT’S 100 up for Italy, not that there has been much of a celebration. Italy’s last defeat to Ireland marked the 100th Six Nations match that the Azzurri have lost including an eye watering 35 games on the bounce and counting.

On the flip side of the ledger lie 12 wins, the last of which came back in 2015. Italy have enjoyed one victory over Ireland, two against France and Wales, and seven wins over Scotland including their first ever Six Nations game way back in 2000. Italy have never beaten England in the Six Nations at senior level. They also registered one draw, against Wales, 18-18, and at the Millennium Stadium too, as was.

It seems unlikely that that long sorry streak will end on Saturday. Italy will not get much from Scotland’s defence: not because of the excellence of Scotland’s ‘D’, although it was pretty good until France knocked the door down, but simply because Italy don’t score many tries, they have become a collectors item, rarer than Russian contrition.


GHA v Jed: Mollison’s mullet for the chop as regular Premiership season comes to an end

Italy v Scotland: Townsend calls for clarity after van der Merwe suspension

Italy v Scotland: five changes for Six Nations round four clash in Rome


We have seen 224 minutes of rugby since Italy last touched down, against France, courtesy of Paolo Garbisi’s kick-pass, expertly fielded by teen winger Tommaso Menoncello, 16 minutes into their opening game against France. Against England, with the full complement of 15 men, you feel that the match could have lasted weeks rather than hours and Italy still wouldn’t have worried the England line.

In fairness, in the autumn window Italy did manage three tries but two of them came against Uruguay (19th in the world rankings, Italy sit 14th), the other against Los Pumas, so, again, it is difficult to see where Italy can beg a try from, unless the Scottish defence suffers a collective brain freeze as they did for Damian Penaud’s second effort which arrived, let’s not forget, off first phase ball.

The changes that Scotland have made should not unduly hinder them. Hamish Watson returns with added incentive to reclaim his place as Scotland’s number one, number seven. On current form alone, Kyle Steyn is probably a better option than the off-colour VDM, one big Saffa for another, and if Matt Fagerson brings his Calcutta Cup chops to bear his return will boost Scotland’s cause immeasurably. Adam Hastings should have been on the bench all along, goodness knows what he did to upset Gregor Townsend … move to Gloucester perhaps?

Italy are at least a settled side with just the two enforced changes at hooker (Giacomo Nicotera for Gianmarco Lucchesi) and scrum-half (Callum Braley for Stephen Varney, an Englishman replacing a Welshman) from the team that lost to Ireland. And the Azzurri possess threats, just not enough of them to worry a top ten team.

Winger Monty Ioane comes with an impressive pedigree and is dangerous in space if the opposition gives him any. Garbisi is a canny conductor who would, if I can mix my metaphors, benefit from having a few more bullets to fire. And teen sensation Leonardo Marin, who starts at 12 for the second successive game, is said by Italian pundits to be a better long term bet than Garbisi at fly-half. The midfield pair may even mix and match, swapping between 10 and 12 on the day, just to show Scotland a different picture.

 

Enjoyed this article? Quality journalism like ours is made possible by readers like you. If you value our in-depth coverage of Scottish rugby at all levels and want to see more, please consider supporting us with a subscription or donation. It helps us keep delivering the news you love. Thank you for being a part of The Offside Line community!

 

The Azzurri front-five front-up to the best of their abilities, especially the front-row, while tending to tire in the final quarter and at blindside Italy have a wonderfully combative leader in Michele Lamaro who, to no one’s great surprise, is leading the tournament tackle count with an impressive 59 to his name this season … 13 ahead of the next busiest defender.

Above all, Italy always takes a crumb of comfort that it’s Scotland they are playing, rather than Ireland, England or New Zealand. Remember those seven victories (losses if you are a Scot) because the Italians do. For far too long Scotland and Italy were joined at the hip, dark and sky blue together, in a league of our own, two ulgy sisters at the Six Nations Ball. Now Scotland has put clear blue water between themselves and Italy but they can’t afford a hiccup on Saturday after two less than persuasive displays against Wales and France.

The Welsh defeat was a crisis of confidence. Scotland are better than Wales but the home side, roared on by the home crowd, wanted to win more than the visitors.

In contrast, France are a better team than Scotland but not by the margin we all witnessed two weeks back. It seemed as if Finn Russell took the executive decision not to kick again after handing Antoine Dupont that early opportunity. Although it’s worth remembering that his hoof downtown wasn’t a bad kick. It found space in the middle of the field and had Darcy Graham or Rory Darge killed the move at source, Russell would have got a good few pats on the back. Instead it was a case of once bitten … Scotland thereafter kicked just 3.5% of possession in the match when that figure is normally around 13-15%.

 

Kicking is like a scrum-half break, you have to do it just to keep the defence honest, to ensure the opposition keep three bodies in the deep, especially with the 50/22 in mind, which leaves the front line under-manned … at least that is the idea. By failing to kick much thereafter, Russell was condemning his outside backs to face defenders who could rush up knowing Russell was reluctant to kick behind them.

Does any of this matter against Italy? Probably not, if we are being honest. Scotland can play at 80% and probably still win unless Italy shows us some superpower they have kept hidden thus far. And that is the problem, for Italy and the Six Nations.

Every other team in the tournament could beat any other team on the day. That is the beauty of this competition. You fancy France and Ireland but you’d hesitate to throw your mortgage on either of the favourites because the Six Nations always throws up an upset or two. It is the upsets that make this tournament what it is and that is what Italy, and the tournament, desperately needs on Saturday.

But by his own admission this is Townsend’s strongest ever squad, they are due a performance and, if they produce it, they are 25 points better than Italy.


Italy v Scotland: Townsend calls for clarity after van der Merwe suspension

About Iain Morrison 151 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

2 Comments

  1. To me there are 3 tiers in this years 6N, tier 1 is France and Ireland , tier 2 is Scotland , England and Wales and tier 3 is Italy. On the day home or away the tier 1 teams will win, the tier 2 teams will generally win at home against other tier 2 or 3 teams. That said I do think Italy are improving , their U20 team has only lost to France and they now last he whole 80 minutes and score tries, lets hope they can make a fist of becoming a tier 2 level team soon.

    • The Italians are improving albeit slowly. They are now back at a level where this game could easily be a banana skin for us. They competed gamely with 2 men down against Ireland and you can bet the anger at being hard done by, whatever the rules say, will be still festering under the surface. We need to take the wind out their sails early on or their momentum could easily move the game almost out of reach then our headless chicken tactics will do the rest.

Comments are closed.