THERE was a great sketch in television’s ‘The Fast Show’. It featured Paul Whitehouse as an old man who tells the camera that workmen have dug a huge hole in the road and, like as not, he will fall in. He then takes an absolute age, remember this is dubbed The Fast Show, to walk agonisingly slowly toward the hole where, to no one’s surprise, he falls in. Everyone knows he will end up in the hole, the joy rests in the anticipation and the unveiling of exactly how it happens; in this case a rogue gust of wind.
Scotland know that there is an Italian shaped hole waiting for them on Saturday afternoon although the analogy is not perfect as we are uncertain as to whether Gregor Townsend’s team will take a collective pratfall and, moreover, laughs would be a little scarce were the Scots to take a tumble at the last.
Townsend and his team need this win to finish the series in credit; nothing else will suffice. A loss to a team ranked nine places below Scotland, on home soil, doesn’t bear thinking about.
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Kieran Crowley and his team need this win because they owe it to themselves after playing excellent attacking rugby for long spells and dominating teams without getting any reward for their efforts. All of which makes Italy’s starting XV something of a surprise.
I had Italian tight-head prop Simone Ferrari down as a strong candidate for my Team of the Tournament but he is out of the match-day squad altogether. When quizzed his coach says he needs a rest! Ahead of a winnable game! In fact Crowley insists that this squad is already looking forward to the World Cup although that is surely disingenuous, designed to hoodwink Scotland’s players into a false sense of security. Make no mistake, Italy will come to Murrayfield to win.
Perhaps it is appropriate in Cheltenham week but Crowley has gambled with his selection and not just by dropping Ferrari. He has also jettisoned the dependable Edoardo Padovani in favour of Zebre flyer Simone Gesi; an unknown quantity at this level but he does at least have the USP of being rapid. He seems to have been called up to replace the spirit of the injured Ange Capuozzo, someone to make something happen, although that may be wishful thinking.
Gesi’s gas obviously helps with the ball in hand, he has scored seven tries in 10 club appearances this season without winning a single match; some sort of record. Perhaps more importantly, his pace helps pressure kicks. Paolo Garbisi may well try and turn his opposite number Kyle Steyn and then squeeze the big Saffa’s time/space to get the ball away safely.
That is if Garbisi kicks at all. Italy have kicked less than any other team in the tournament, a lot less. That is partly down to Crowley’s coast-to-coast, run-from-all-corners tactics but also partly because (injured) full-back Capuozzo is lucky to hoof the ball 50 feet never mind 50 metres. But keeping the ball in hand and forcing the play is a high-risk strategy, just look what happened to Scotland on Frank Hadden‘s watch.
When these two teams met at Murrayfield in 2007, Scotland attempted to play too much rugby in the wrong areas of the field with disastrous consequences. Fly-half Phil Godman was charged down trying to dink a kick over the Azzurri defence inside his own 22 for the first try. Then Chris Cusiter fired two interceptions and Italy were 21-0 up with the match exactly seven minutes old.
There is a worry that Crowley is making the same mistake Hadden made all those years ago, and Townsend replicated as recently as RWC’19, going wide without earning the right but perhaps he feels that it is the best of several bad options for this Italy squad?
The point is that Wales didn’t have to do very much to beat the Azzurri last weekend … just squeeze and wait for the inevitable mistakes to arrive. Scotland can surely learn a lesson there, get ahead on the scoreboard, stay there and let Italy chase the game.
Scrum-half Alessandro Fusco is another wildcard selection from the gruff Kiwi coach; a talent but a wayward one who could win you the game or lose it in a moment of madness. Boring he is not and Fusco will at least fit in with Italy’s up-and-at-em-style of rugby. He scored one of the Azzurri’s two tries at Twickenham and won’t be shy about testing Scotland’s fringe defence.
Incidentally, Stephen Vardy doesn’t even make the bench, split 6-2 between forwards and backs, another roll of the dice from Crowley. Instead the younger of the Garbisi brothers, Alessandro, sits beside the only other back Luca Morisi on the pine.
The Italian back-row is where Italy may have an edge. All three are athletic, workaholic and skilful forwards that would get a start in most teams. The big blindside Sebastian Negri is the only forward in the Championship to have carried the ball more often than Pierre Schoeman (52-45).
But while Marco Riccione is a decent replacement for Ferrari at tighthead, the remainder of the Italian tight five may struggle to match the power of the Scottish big men, especially after the coaches go to the bench. That Scottish maul has done well to date and we should expect to see plenty more of it, grinding down the visitors, metre by metre, winning ugly if needs be.
If the Azzurri can go toe-to-toe with the Scotland pack the final result could be uncomfortably close with some key backs AWOL. Scotland’s side are shorn of two game-breakers in Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, even if the talented Ollie Smith turns out to be the more exciting selection at full-back.
Much has been written about Blair Kinghorn’s ability to dictate play at the highest level but fly-half is the one position where you need time in the saddle … which is the one thing the leggy utility-back has not really enjoyed. He has had seven starts for Edinburgh at ten, but this is only his second start at stand-off for Scotland this season. It will be instructive to see what Townsend’s latest recruit, Munsterman Ben Healy, can do late in the game. A good showing could catapult the Irishman into World Cup contention.
Whatever happens at ten, and Scotland would take Garbisi in a heartbeat, you still fancy the home side if only because of Italy’s woeful defence. The Azzurri have scored eight tries, one more than Wales to date, but conceded a whopping 18 at a rate of over 4.5 per match. Italy are conceding an average of four tries every time they step on the field and scoring two, so you do the math.
Italy made 11 line breaks against Wales, the most of any team in this year’s tournament, and still finished second on the scoreboard after converting just two of those breaks into tries. In contrast, Wales made four line breaks and scored from three of them. Even when Italy threatens, their finishing lets them down.
At times Italy’s defence has been good but all too often it has been found wanting, such as when Liam Williams scored for Wales in the first half last weekend. That try came from turnover ball, which is tricky to defend as everyone’s alignment is wrong, but Williams still broke three or four Italian tackles on his way to the line.
That doesn’t take coaching, that takes concentration, grit and determination. Italy will need oodles of all three if they are to triumph at Murrayfield for the first time since 2015.
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Why are we reading about how bad it would be if Scotland lose?
Let’s hope the players are taking a more positive view!
‘If only because of Italy’s woeful defence’ in my view does not do justice to the excellent attacking play by Scotland’s three-quarter line, which has picked apart most defences in this competition so far. Nor to the way the team generally has competed in the campaign, barring the first quarter against France and the lamentable second half fade against Ireland. Last time at Murrayfield we beat Italy 52-10. While a repeat of that scoreline might be somewhat optimistic, the bookies still have us down to win by 18. And in terms of my expectations that is just about right. The Italians will come at us hard for the first 20, but they abandoned their composure in the red zone against Wales and comfortably lost a home match against a pretty average side. And yes their defence is poor, shockingly so. I do not lose sight of the fact that we are gunning for the ‘bronze medal’ and that a convincing performance is required going into the World Cup to show that we have improved. The Fast Show character was called Unlucky Alf. If we lose – or just scrape by – there will be nothing unlucky about it, just poor performance.