Scotland v Italy: All you need to know about about this weekend’s 6N opener

Traditional wooden-spoon contenders are the desperate to show that there is some substance to the runners about their recent progress

Stuart McInally v Italy
Stuart McInally in action against Italy during the 2018 Six Nations. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

SCOTLAND v ITALY @ MURRAYFIELD STADIUM on SATURDAY 2ND JANUARY 2019.

Kick-off 2.15pm GMT. Live on BBC (UK), FR2 (France), Virgin Media (Ireland), DMAX (Italy), NBC (USA).

Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn; Fin Russell, Greig Laidlaw (c); Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, WP Nel,  Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner, Jamie Ritchie, Ryan Wilson. Subs: Jake Kerr, Jamie Bhatti, Gary Graham, Josh Strauss, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Chis Harris.

Italy: Jayden Hayward;  Angelo Esposito, Luca Morisi, Tommaso Castello, Michele Campagnaro; Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari, David Sisi, Dean Budd,  Sebastian Negri, Abraham Steyn, Sergio Parisse (c). Subs: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore,  Tiziano Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Jimmy Tuivaiti,  Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Edoardo Padovani.


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The importance of starting well

Anyone with any affection for Scottish rugby will still be wrestling with the painful memory of last year’s Six Nation’s curtain-raiser when Gregor Townsend and his side travelled down to Cardiff full of confidence and returned home with their tail tucked between their legs after a humiliating 7-34 defeat in a game which was much more one-sided than even the score-line suggests. Scotland, traditionally, do not start the Six Nations well, having managed to win their opening match only once since 2006, which is frustrating but not really cataclysmic to the team’s overall prospects for the Championship if they are falling short in Cardiff, London, Dublin or Paris (or indeed losing to the big dogs at Murrayfield), but this is the first time they have faced Italy first-up during that period and a reversal on this occasion would leave a mountain to climb given the calibre of the opposition still to come

Head coach Townsendhas spoken on several occasions during the lead-up to this tournament about the chastening experience of the Wales defeat last February, and has stressed that the team will not fall into the trap of believing their hype again. Last year’s battle against Italy in Rome should help fortify against complacency.

For all the depth we can now talk about in the squad across the back-line and in the back two rows of the scrum, there are still areas where it doesn’t take a  lot for the team to start looking seriously threadbare – particularly in the front-row, where a general lack of options is compounded at the moment by the absence through injury of Fraser Brown and George Turner at hooker, and Zander Fagerson at tight-head prop.

The good news is that Stuart McInally, one of the best hookers in world rugby at the moment, is fit and raring to go in the number two jersey, and showed his durability during the last Six Nations when he played all of the first three games apart from the final few minutes in Wales. Uncapped Jake Kerr is covering from the bench, and although he lacks front-line pro experience, he has shown with Leicester Tigers this year that he is a reliable and technically proficient operator, which will stand him in good stead should he face a baptism of fire.

At tight-head, WP Nel is in fine form for Edinburgh and seems to have put his neck-shoulder problems in the past, and Simon Berghan is an experienced understudy, so it is hardly a crisis situation there.

Meanwhile, there is nobody really missing at loose-head, but the fact both Scottish pro teams currently field non-Scottish qualified South Africans in Pierre Schoeman at Edinburgh and Oli Kebble at Glasgow Warriors as their first choice number ones, means that Allan Dell and Jamie Bhatti have been living off scraps when it comes to game time this season. Forwards coach Danny Wilson indicated on Friday that this could be viewed as a blessing in disguise because it means they are fresh and extra hungry, but he did acknowledge that there is nothing quite like miles on the clock to give a front-row forward the general ruggedness they need to do their job – it is a delicate balancing act and we will find out this afternoon whether the loose-heads are undercooked or not.


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The SRU have worked hard to develop a ‘technical blueprint’ of how Scottish teams at all levels should play, which basically involves a fast-paced, high-continuity approach to the game which relies on supreme fitness levels and the ability to keep the ball alive to mitigate against a perceived lack of bulk. When it works, it is great to watch and very effective, and with players like Finn Russell in the side the national team can really turn it on. But there is a growing acceptance that while this approach can provide a useful bedrock, it is high-risk and there needs to be a viable alternative way of doing things when the opposition, weather or general lack of form becomes an inhibiting factor.

The Italy game at the end of the last Six Nations and the Argentina game during November have been sighted this week as evidence that the team are ‘finding different ways to win’. With Italy certain to fire out of the blocks this weekend, and near arctic temperatures expected in the capital, the adaptability of this Scotland team will once again be put to the test.

WHAT THEY SAID

Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw on the importance of Scotland being accurate at the breakdown –

That’s an area we’ve looked at and I think it’s an area where teams will come at us. We’ve worked hard, and working smart is going to be key. Speed to rucks is going to be vitally important. If you have a good attack shape and put speed on the play then rucks become easier. So that, for us, is a big part of taking the game to them and sort of take the referee out of it; show him we’re sharp and clean in that area.

Italy flanker Bram Steyn on the need for his team to build from last year’s agonising defeat to Scotland  –

We should take the momentum we created during that game and put it into this game and start from there. You can’t let go for a minute at this level, as soon as you allow a team to get back into the game for a minute, two minutes, three minutes, then teams like Scotland with a great back three, especially, will punish you and put points on the board. We need to play for 80 minutes – or 85 minutes, it depends on how long it takes – we can’t switch off for one second.

We are very close. We are implementing the same structure at our clubs, and training at a high intensity where we are under a lot of stress and have to make decisions, big decisions, under stress. We are training the same way with the national team and have been doing it for six or seven months now and I think we will get there. We are ready, I believe, but it is easy to sit here and tell you ‘ this should happen’, ‘that should happen’ and all that, but it is out on the pitch and performing that really shows what we can do.

We know exactly what the coaches expect form us by now. There is also what we are doing at our clubs where we are performing a lot better. Players are on form, players are fit and players are making good decisions, playing good rugby. We should take that into the national team but it is also a step up [so] we need to bring that and more, especially the mental aspect of things where we can’t let go for even one minute. In the PRO14 there are times were can have a nap for five or 10 minutes but then get back into the game – at this level, there is no place for that.

Scotland forwards coach Danny Wilson  on how Scotland hope to avoid another slow start –

Our leadership group have come to the table this last two weeks, and I’ve been really impressed with the way the experienced players have made sure we’ve trained with the intensity we need to train with. Ultimately, it’s a home game, it’s an opportunity because it’s at home. Any game at home is a game we target. With full respect to Italy and what they are capable of doing, we need to turn up and get the tactics right for the opposition we’re playing. This last two weeks we’ve devised a gameplan that we think is the right one, and there’s a confidence that Scotland have proved in recent internationals what they are capable of, although  there’s a lot that we need to improve on.

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea on where he expects his tea to get a toe-hold in the game –

Ball-in-play time doesn’t worry us now. A year ago, two years ago, it might have worried us, in fact it would have probably frightened us. But in some of the games we’ve played [recently] the ball has been in play maybe 42 minutes, so ball in play, no issue. We’ll get around the pitch and we’ll try and play ourselves.

“Where the toehold comes is …  if we talk about our Australia game, that game was decided by two or three key moments. These things change energy, and when we get the chance we need to take them. That’s what we did against Scotland in Rome last year.

“It begins and ends with the pack. Always has, always will. But it’s also when you get those chances, can you take them to give you that belief and energy?”

THREE KEY CLASHES

Allan Dell v Simone Ferrari

With Pierre Schoeman tearing up trees for Edinburgh during the last few months, Dell has been relegated to a support role at club level, managing just five starts and six bench appearances all season, and playing only 109 minutes of competitive rugby since the start of December. The need to get more regular game time his driven his decision to join London Irish next season. While there is something to be said for coming into a big series of matches at this time of the season with a freshness which comes from not having been put through the mill on a weekly basis at club level, there is also a big danger of being undercooked in a position which is as much about resilience as explosiveness.

Ferrari, meanwhile, has been getting regular game time for a Benetton team who are high on confidence, but has also been managed well so that he isn’t run into the ground. He is more than a traditional scrummaging tight-head, with an appetite for big collisions in the middle of the park.

Ryan Wilson v Sergio Parrisse

Parisse will play his 66th Six Nations match this weekend, moving ahead of Brian O’Driscoll on the competition’s all-time appearance chart. He has started every single one of those games, and he has still been on the pitch at the final whistle on 57 occasions, missing only 59 minutes of playing time out of a possible 5,200.

He’s carried the ball on 733 occasions, almost 250 clear of second placed O’Driscoll. He’s the only player to have run for over 3km with ball in hand, with Irish full-back Rob Kearney in 2nd place with 2.7km. He has beaten 78 defenders, more than any other forward. In defence, only he and Alun Wyn Jones have racked up over 500 tackles in the history of the Guinness 6 Nations. His 35 turnovers are the best by a forward; and his 162 line-out wins place him in 5th spot in that particular category, just behind second-rows Scott Murray,Marco Bortolami, Paul O’Connell and Malcolm O’Kelly.

He has captained his team in 47 of these Six Nations matches which is, unsurprisingly, more than any other player, with O’Driscoll once again in second place with 41. In total, he has represented the Azzurri on 134 occasions, so, assuming he gets through this Championship and Italy’s summer schedule, by the time the World Cup rolls round in the Autumn he will be very close to eclipsing Richie McCaw’s record all-time haul of 148.

Its a sensational personal record, and all the more so in the context of being part of a team which has continually struggled. Of those 134 caps he has been on the losing team on 100 of those occasions. Which in no way detracts from his own shining example, rather adds lustre to his remarkable longevity and resilience in the face of continual setbacks.

At 35, however, he is entering the twilight of his career, and has hinted that this may be his last Six Nations. The pace might have dropped slightly, and he may be relying more and more on his experience and rugby smarts than genuine explosiveness, but he remains a talismanic figure for Italy and the sort of challenge which the famously combative Wilson will surely relish getting stuck into.

Finn Russell v Tommaso Allan

The evidence so far is that Russell’s move to Racing 92 has been a success. His form has been excellent and French rugby culture is perhaps more ambivalent to his occasional aberrations, acknowledging that genius on the rugby field must be about courage rather than consistency. He says he is loving his time in Paris and has returned home for this Six Nations window determined to push his teams to be more confident in their ability to get round the outside of defences, which sounds exciting but the really big question is whether he can find that balance between adventure and pragmatism which is required in order to sustain competitiveness over a full campaign. Rugby is a game of momentum and unless you are involved in a serious mismatch, that momentum will shift several times over the course of a single match, let alone a Test series, so Scotland need their chief playmaker to be able to put his foot on the brake when things are in danger of careering off track. When Russell plays well, Scotland play well, the key is whether both parties can tailor their game to suit the circumstances

Allan, the nephew of former Scotland hooker John Allan, threw his lot in with Italy (his mother’s homeland and where he was born) when he failed to win a contract with the SRU following his stint with the Under-2os. He has since picked up 43-caps for the Azzurri, so is firmly established as the man to pull the strings as Conor O’Shea builds towards the World Cup. He was excellent against Scotland last time-out when scoring his team’s first and third tries, creating the second with a clever grubber-kick, and adding three conversions and two penalties for a personal haul of 22.

SCOTLAND’S RECORD AGAINST ITALY

Played 29 – Won 21 – Drawn 0 – Lost 8

Best result

29 August 2015: Scotland 48 Italy 7

Biggest defeat

24 February 2007: Scotland 17 Italy 37

Six most recent matches

22 August 2015: Italy 12 Scotland 16

29 August 2015: Scotland 48 Italy 7

27 February 2016: Italy 20 Scotland 36

18 March 2017: Scotland 29 Italy 0

10 June 2017: Scotland 34 Italy 13 (in Singapore)

17 March 2018: Italy 27 Scotland 29

LAST TIME OUT

It may have been underwhelming, and it was arguably undeserved against an inspired Italian side, but it was a victory nonetheless for Scotland as they ended the 2018 Six Nations with three wins out of five.

Gregor Townsend’s team were behind for most of the game, and only rarely showed the spark of genius they managed in their previous wins over England and France, but if this was a step backwards in terms of their performance, it surely represented progress when it comes to strength of character. Not only did they  withstand an Italian onslaught, they also overcame their own shortcomings – thanks in part to their growing maturity and in part to their superior fitness.

Italy had struck first in the second half through Tommaso Allan to go 24-12 up, but Scotland bounced back through Sean Maitland with 20 minutes to go and then edged into a two point lead through a converted Stuart Hogg try with 10 to play. Italian hopes were rekindled when an Allan penalty put them back in front, Greig Laidlaw responded with three points of his own a couple of minutes before the end to secure a 27-29 away win.

It was a bitter pill for Italy to swallow, while Scotland were able to rather sheepishly celebrate a third win of the Championship knowing that hey had got lucky.

Interestingly, only seven members of Scotland’s starting XV in that match – Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones,Finn Russell, Laidlaw, WP Nel and Ryan Wilson – are in the team this weekend, plus Stuart McInally, Jamie Bhatti, Ali Price and the unused Blair Kinghorn were on the bench that day, meaning only 11 out of today’s squad of 23 played in the last game. Italy have had a similar turnover of players, with only 12 survivors from that match involved this weekend, which gives an indication of just attritional modern pro rugby is in terms of either injuries and/or form.


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About David Barnes 3989 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.