Six Nations: Italy v Scotland: finding your bearings in Rome is not always as easy as it should be

Midfield match-up will be key in what is likely to be an entertaining and tight contest

Cam Redpath and Gregor Townsend during Scotland's captains run at the Stadio Olimpico. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Cam Redpath and Gregor Townsend during Scotland's captains run at the Stadio Olimpico. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

THE Scottish rugby journalists’ pack were out on the toot after a Test in Rome not long after the turn of the century/millennium. Everything was going swimmingly until the bar called time and kicked us out to stand in the rain while we waited on a cab we had ordered. 

We waited and we waited, becoming increasingly cold, wet and sober. After several lifetimes the cab finally appeared, I gave the driver the card with my hotel address on it and he drove approximately 100 yards around the corner and dropped me off at the hotel door.

I know, I know, it was my fault, my only excuse is that this occurred before smartphones, and Google Maps, were ubiquitous.


Six Nations: Italy v Scotland: sell-out highlights Azzurri’s high hopes

Italy v Scotland: Gregor Townsend warns of ‘massive threat’ from hosts

Six Nations round four: Italy v Scotland live blog …


In contrast, Scotland should know exactly where and what they are all about on this trip to the Eternal City because it’s been a long time since they were made to feel like chumps; 2012 their last loss in Rome, ancient history in a place with plenty of the stuff on offer. The Scots sit four places higher than Italy in World Rugby’s rankings, 6th v 10th, and Gregor Townsend’s team are, by and large, better players than their opposite numbers with the odd exception.

I should be calling a 15 point win here and now and, in the unlikely event that Scotland lean into this one for the full 80 minutes they could yet get it.

However, the Italians are at their most dangerous when they can sniff the scent of victory in the wind and the performance against France has offered them exactly that. Coach Quesada Gonzalo has had an excellent start and the team’s tail is up.

Scotland may have motored ahead of the Azzurri over the last 12 years but they don’t scare them in the way that some other teams do. Moreover, Italian ranks are further bolstered by the return of several key players and one completely new one.

Harlequins’ winger Louis Lynagh is a tricky enough customer in the wide channels to deserve respect on his own terms but, perhaps more importantly, his recent recruitment to the land of his mother allows Quesada to move the outstanding Tommaso Menoncello from the wing and back to his preferred berth at centre where he is at his most effective and will surely see a bit more of the ball.

This is important because Scotland’s own midfield is weakened by the absence of Sione Tuipulotu; the glue that keeps this side together. His replacement, Cameron Redpath, plays beside Finn Russell every week with Bath. He is a heads up, second five eighth kind of player and dangerous in attack but he is not the stopper/gain line specialist that he has replaced.

Everyone fields a gain line specialist at 12 these days: Damian De Allende (SA), Bundee Aki (Ire), Jordie Barrett (NZ), Jonathan Danty (Fr), Ollie Lawrence (Eng), are the top five by rank, so for Townsend to go with a second distributor is risky. If Scotland lose this one people will ask why Stafford McDowll was overlooked?

Scotland now boast a midfield trio, Russell, Redpath and Huw Jones that is begging Italy’s big ball carriers to run at them. The trio tackle well but none of them relishes the physical side of the game in the same way as Tuipulotu.

If Italy carry the day they will probably have their midfield to thank although, oddly enough, the top two players in the Six Nations’ “missed tackles” chart are Italy’s chunky centres, Juan Ignacio Brex and Menoncello, so both sides will probably look at the opposition midfield and see opportunities.

 

 

Elsewhere, Italy’s best two props missed the start of the tournament but one of them, Simone Ferrari, starts against Scotland and will be looking to squeeze a Scottish scrum that has occasionally looked vulnerable.

The Azzurri also welcome twin breakaways Sebastian Negri, the hugely experienced flanker, and the superstar No 8 Lorenzo Cannone who, surprisingly, only makes the bench with Exeter’s Ross Vintcent rewarded for his excellence against France with a start.

Andy Christie looks like a great power pick for Scotland. Better late than never, I suppose.

Both teams are similar, with front five forwards who are light-heavyweight at best, six of Italy’s pack come from Benetton, while Townsend has gone for a 6/2 split on the bench which was an odd move but may have something to do with the possibility of rain in Rome?

Most of the threats on both sides sit in the wider channels, although Scotland’s tries this season have come largely from turnover ball and Duhan’s pace/power rather than any wizard-like creativity. Van der Merwe has claimed five of Scotland’s seven touchdowns, a world class finisher, but Kyle Steyn is a better all round winger and perhaps on Saturday afternoon he will get some ball in space to prove it.

Blair Kinghorn has also failed to light the touch paper thus far. His breakaway try last season at Murrayfield against the same opposition gave the final score a respectable look it didn’t deserve and the full-back usually has an influence on a game, one way or another.

Scotland’s South African flyers are up against Lynagh and the dangerous Monty Ioane, who scored a cracking solo try at the death against England. But it is full-back Ange Capuozzo, Italy’s very own Billy Whizz, who you cannot take your eyes off.

Scotland will kick long and often because neither Capuozzo or Ioane can kick long in return (the full-back doesn’t kick much at all). A good kick-chase offers the juicy potential of a turnover/penalty and a 50 yard gain. A bad kick-chase and Scotland will discover just what havoc the Italian back-three can wreak with the ball in hand.

When I was getting frozen outside that bar in Rome in the early noughties, Scotland and Italy were two peas from the same pod, both to be found at the wrong end of the Championship table, caught up in a miserable spiral of underperformance that neither could quite shake.

Fast forward to the present day, Scotland has made significant strides, Italy can see better things just around the next bend. Scotland sit second in the table with an outside chance of the title, Italy have three points in the bag and dream of the next victory.

We should expect a thrilling game, high scoring if the morning rain passes, full of incident and drama regardless, with Scotland winning a close encounter, helped by the fact that Russell is 100 percent off the tee while Italy’s assorted marksmen are kicking 70 percent.

 

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Six Nations round four: Italy v Scotland live blog …

About Iain Morrison 143 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.

4 Comments

  1. Mr Morrison doesn’t mention Horne, but it’s an oversight. Watch tomorrow as his speedy distribution lights up our backline.

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  2. “Scotland’s South African flyers” – will we ever get a report from TOL that doesn’t inssesantly make digs at these guys? What does this gain?

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  3. Redpath is a tremendous rugby player and Scotland are lucky to have such depth at centre.

    Ultimate I do reckon there is a sort of naivety, maybe a authoritarian feel to this GT tenure, IMO he has had too long in one sense but in his favour he seems to be learning (sometimes). The 38-38 game, the dropping of Finn Russell and even tomorrow selecting a pretty one dimensional running team against a tough Italy in the rain.
    Fascinating

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  4. Losing Tuipulotu is not ideal but I think it was always a toss up between him and Redpath for the 12 berth when both available. He is such a heads up player exemplified by his turn leading up to the 1st try 2 weeks ago.
    Anything can happen playing the Italians, we know they always put in that extra 10% against us as they view it as their best chance of a win but if we don’t put them away convincingly we can stop feeling aggrieved at the French farce that destroyed our championship chances.

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