Scotland v Italy: losing isn’t an option in a game which hosts can’t win

Gregor Townsend's boys will have too much firepower for the Azzurri but still have plenty to prove

Stuart Hogg will lead Scotland into a must-win match against Italy tomorrow night. Image: © Craig Watson -
Stuart Hogg will lead Scotland into a must-win match against Italy tomorrow night. Image: © Craig Watson -

I READ somewhere that the Italy match was Scotland’s ‘cup final’. No, it isn’t. Instead of being Scotland’s ‘must win’ game Saturday’s encounter with the Azzurri is Scotland’s ‘can’t win’ game. Scotland wouldn’t lose to this Italian squad if they were shown a red card at the start of each half. Scotland can’t lose this game which, paradoxically, means that they can’t win it.

If Gregor Townsend’s team chalk up 50 points, as almost everyone else has done against Italy this season, the pundits will say that it is only what is expected. Should Scotland win by 10 points ,everyone will demand more and so they should because this Italy team is young, inexperienced and desperately ordinary with the exception of a couple of emerging players, including fly-half Paolo Gabrisi, who would surely start for Scotland ahead of Stuart Hogg were he eligible.

Only once in the last two Championship seasons have Italy stopped the opposition from scoring at least four tries and that was when Scotland stumbled to a less than convincing 17-0 victory in Rome last year.

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Scotland v Italy: Gregor Townsend takes a calculated risk on Stuart Hogg at 10

Scotland v Italy: Stuart Hogg and Scott Steele at half-back in much changed side

So far this season,  Italy have conceded a whopping 26 tries in four matches played, that averages out at 6.5 per match, and should Scotland manage four more on Saturday then Italy’s total Championship tries against of 30 would set a new record since they joined the party back in 2000.

Scotland’s ordinary season has seen them fall two places to ninth in the World Rugby rankings but they remain six places ahead of today’s opponents, who trail in 15th behind Samoa, Georgia, Tonga and Fiji.

Just like Townsend, Italy coach Franco Smith has rung a few changes this weekend. Jaco Trulla has been dropped from the squad having never looked comfortable at full-back, which might not surprise you since he can’t get a full-time PRO14 contract and is instead a ‘permit player’ with Zebre but plays most of his rugby in the Peroni Top Ten with Calvisano. At just 20, he has time on his side if his confidence can recover.

Trulla is replaced by Benetton’s Edoardo Padovani, who is happier at ten but at 27 years and with 23 caps to his name the one time Toulon player will at least bring some much needed nous to the last line of defence.

So Italy have a fly-half at full-back while Scotland have a full-back starting at fly-half and you have think Padovani has the easier transition of the two however broadly Hogg’s remarkable skills extend.

Matters get worse for Italy when Smith has to go to the bench in the second half of the game. Replacement lock Riccardo Favretto is 19-years-old, 6ft 5ins tall and tips the scales at just 16 ½ stones. He is another ‘permit player’ who splits his time between Benetton and Mogliano in the Peroni Top Ten. It is almost as though the clock has gone back by several decades rather than an hour and we have returned to the amateur era when this sort of thing was commonplace.

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Of course, Favretto may surprise us all and flourish in the rarefied atmosphere of Test rugby but the huge step up may equally well prove too big an ask for the club player and you have to question the coach’s wisdom of throwing a teenager into the meat grinder that is an international boiler house? You wish him well and, above all else, you hope he remains safe.

The other notable change comes at inside centre where Smith has dropped Carlo Canna, a fly-half by inclination, to start Federico Mori, who promises a more direct threat. It looks like the hard running Mori will give Hogg some tackling practice come kick off.

Monty Ionne on the left wing remains Italy’s most potent attacking threat and Gabrisi is likely to look for him at every opportunity, especially with the cross-field kick-pass.

Italy will win their set-piece and keep hold of the ball for long periods, they have done as much in every game, but they lack sufficient sharp edges to truly discomfort the Scots. Moreover, Italy’s defence and discipline are both notable only for their absence. Their tally of 51 penalties (and 4 yellow cards) is bettered only by England (thank you Maro Itoje) while Scotland have conceded just 28 albeit after 80 minutes less rugby.

Townsend has gambled on Hogg at ten, a kick in the nuts to all the other contenders. More importantly, if Hogg really is a better fly-half than Jaco van der Walt then why did Scottish Rugby drag the second rate Saffa over here in the first place?

Zander Fagerson’s return bolsters the ball-carrying and the set-piece while Ali Price has paid the price for a couple of howlers. I hope Scott Steele has licence to speed things up as he sees fit because the scrummy is fast becoming the key attacking player in the modern game as anyone who has seen Harry Randall perform for Bristol will appreciate.

But Townsend has ignored the one area of the team sheet that needs attention. The back-row lacks balance with three relatively slight, relatively quick figures. It is a breakaway unit for the ‘fastest rugby’ that Townsend abandoned after the humiliation of RWC’19 and it needs to change now that this Scotland squad have adopted a more balanced approach with a lot more direct carries into the heart of the opposition defence.

There are not a huge number of Scots putting their hands up but Townsend needs at least one big ball-carrying, har- hitting beast at six or eight if only to allow the other two breakaways to scamper around the park to such good effect.

In a game Scotland can’t lose, Townsend should have experimented in this key area ahead of a much sterner test against a highly physical French team.

Scotland v Italy: Gregor Townsend takes a calculated risk on Stuart Hogg at 10

About Iain Morrison 97 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.


  1. N°8 back row,
    Scotland is missing a powerful and sharp player, for some years.
    Happy in France with excellent Greg Alldritt,half scottish by the way.

  2. Re the back row last year I advocated Luke Crosbie be included his roughness,strength and physicality would add to the back row. However I feel hes not been at his best (for whatever reasoning) this year. Ally Miller has looked good this year.
    I think V D W is better than he plays at Edinburgh. With better players around him and a more expansive hame plan he’d be able to show it.
    We should win today but find myself questioning GTs coaching acumen from the comfort of my armchair (off to the beach)

  3. Completely agree re the back-row Iain. All good players worthy of inclusion in their own way but as part of a different blend. It’s a pity around Bradbury, he has most of the ingredients to fit the bill but I can’t help but think there are issues with temperament, confidence, fitness or possibly all of the above. Johnny Beattie jnr was similar in that he was a fantastic player when he was in the mood but seemingly drifted out of games to the point of anonymity. Watson is probably the must out of the three selected for tomorrow in the back-row as, besides his obvious overall quality, his attributes are the most definitive and unique. His He-Man, throw the tackler over the shoulder attempts when he’s on the ball make for splendid viewing to boot. Haining has limitations but he can carry effectively with the added bonus he apparently upsets opposition a la when he played vs Ireland in Dublin!

  4. I can see Scotland losing this. Has disaster written all over it and Italy always save their best for this fixture.


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