Scotland v Italy preview: Rory Darge admits surprise at captaincy honour

World Cup squad places up for grabs in first warm-up match of the summer

Rory Darge
Rory Darge training with the Scotland squad this week. Image: © Craig Watson. craigwatson.co.uk

THE countdown to the Rugby World Cup begins in earnest today for the Scotland squad when they play their first of four warm-up games, against Italy at the newly-renamed Scottish Gas Murrayfield.

With home and away fixtures against France to follow before the Georgians come to Edinburgh for the last of the quartet, there is still plenty of time for the squad as a whole to finesse their play. But for some individuals within the 41-strong training group, this is likely to be their first and last chance to persuade Gregor Townsend that he should include him in his final 33 for the tournament itself.

The head coach is likely to give everyone some game time over the first two matches if at all possible, which will mean that the 18 left out this afternoon – a group which includes such key players as Finn Russell, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson and Duhan van der Merwe – see action against the French in seven days’ time. And that means that only five members of today’s squad will hold on to their places, whether that is in the starting line-up or on the bench.


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This afternoon’s 23 may not exactly be an experimental line-up – not with such tried-and-trusted performers as Chris Harris, Matt Fagerson and Scott Cummings in it. But it is close to being a second string, the sort of selection you would see for one of the more winnable group games at the World Cup.

Certainly, it would be a surprise if a line-up anywhere close to this were chosen to play South Africa in Scotland’s first pool match -–and it was a surprise, all right, to Rory Darge himself when he was told a week ago that he was to captain the team for the first time.

“It’s a bit of a weird feeling,” the Glasgow openside said at the captain’s-run press conference earlier today (Friday). “I’m honoured, obviously, but I didn’t see it coming – I’ve only got seven caps. But I’m delighted that Gregor has picked me as a captain and sees me as a leader.

“Gregor told me on Friday morning last week. It didn’t frazzle my head, but I was just glad that I had time to digest it and tell my folks, take time to think about what is expected of me throughout the week.”

Darge is the latest in a number of highly impressive players from North Berwick to graduate into the professional ranks, and he believes that a lot of his success is down to the late Keith Hogg, who coached him as a youngster. Hogg, who died last month aged 66 after a long illness and had also been chair of Scotland Rugby League from 2009 to 2021, played a key role for many years in North Berwick Rugby Club.

“Keith was a really good community man,” Darge continued. “He just made it enjoyable for myself and everyone my age who came to rugby. I loved it and he was a big part of why. 

“A lot of mini coaches sometimes [place emphasis] on winning and performance. He just had it on enjoyment, which I think at that level is absolutely the right thing to do. He was a big part of the community.”

Asked about today’s match and the pressure on players to perform given that eight of them will soon be dropped, Darge continued: “It’s going to be pretty brutal. Because you look at the whole squad and you’re thinking ‘Everyone deserves to go and they’ve all worked hard’.

“But there’s almost too much in a Test match to be thinking about that: that’s not really at the front of your mind. What’s at the front of your mind is ‘What do I need to do in this moment to perform?’ I’m sure that’s what the boys’ focus will be on.”

 

As the opening fixture in the 15-match Summer Nations Series which take place over the next five weekends, the game will be the first to showcase a number of innovations which Six Nations Rugby hope will both support match officials and speed up play. The new ‘Bunker’ process, for example, has been designed to cut down on the amount of time wasted reviewing incidents of potential foul play. 

Although referees remain in charge and Television Match Officials are still in place, foul-play incidents in which a red card is not immediately obvious will be referred to a ‘Foul Play Review Officer’ in the Bunker. The player in question will leave the field for ten minutes and the FPRO will have up to eight minutes to review the evidence, after which the referee will either red-card the player or allow him back after a ten-minute sin-binning.

As happened during the Six Nations, a Shot Clock will also be in place, allowing kickers 90 seconds for a conversion and 60 for a penalty. Hawk-Eye will be used as the independent video replay operator, and Ref Cam returns to give broadcasters new angles on the play. 

  • Winger Ruaridh McConnochie has dropped out of Scotland’s World Cup training squad and  returned to Bath as he recovers from an achilles injury. His place in the squad has now been taken by Kyle Rowe who has been training with the group.

 

Teams –

Scotland (v Italy at Scottish Gas Murrayfield, today 3.15pm): O Smith; D Graham, C Harris, S McDowall, K Steyn; B Healy, A Price; R Sutherland, G Turner, M Walker, S Skinner, S Cummings, L Crosbie, R Darge, M Fagerson. Substitutes: S McInally, J Bhatti, J Sebastian, C Henderson, J Bayliss, J Dobie, B Kinghorn, C Redpath. 

Italy: L Pani; P Bruno, T Menoncello, L Morisi, M Ioane; T Allan, M Page-Relo; F Zani, E Faiva, P Ceccarelli, D Sisi, A Zambonin, F Ruzza, M Zuliani, T Halafihi. Substitutes: M Manfredi, D Fischetti, F Alongi, E Iachizzi, L Cannone, A Garbisi, G Da Re, F Mori.

 

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand).

Assistant referee 1: Mathieu Raynal (France).

Assistant referee 2: Adam Leal (England)

TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).


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About Stuart Bathgate 1392 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.