Glasgow stand-off one of several players looking to shine against a tough Italy side in hope of securing place in Vern Cotter’s Scotland squad
The last couple of matches between Italy and Scotland have gone right down to the wire and there is every possibility that this evening’s encounter will end in a similar manner. Back in March the Azzurri killed off the Scots at the death with a driven lineout that ended in the referee awarding a penalty try with the last play of the game. The season before in Rome, Duncan Weir stepped up to the plate with a last-minute 45-yard drop-goal to seal the deal for Scotland.
You suspect that the Glasgow stand-off is currently first reserve behind team-mate Finn Russell, not least because he offers a point of difference with a booming boot both from hand and off the tee. If Scotland are in a winning position during the World Cup, Weir could be brought off the bench late on to close the game out like a specialist pitcher in baseball.
With a kicking stand-off playing inside two physical centres, Scotland may well showcase a more direct form of rugby than the wide-wide game we saw in Dublin.
Weir needs a good showing today because Ruaridh Jackson impressed with the ball in hand last week in a game dominated by running rugby. Greig Tonks gets another chance to show what he can do, this time at fullback where he must defuse any bombs that Tommaso Allan (formally Tommy Allan of Scotland’s Under-20 age grade team) sends his way since Scotland have been noticeably poor in this area.
The centre pairing outside him will be monitored closely. Matt Scott started two matches in the recent Six Nations but you wonder if he was properly fit for either of them. A long succession of injuries to his shoulder has caused most people to forget just how good Scott was, slicing up Samoa in Apia back in 2012 and getting everyone excited until Alex Dunbar proved such an able deputy.
Outside him Richie Vernon gets another chance to make the cut especially since doubts remain over the wisdom of throwing Dunbar straight back into the deep end, even assuming he recovers from serious knee surgery in time. (Incidentally the mood music in the camp regarding Ryan Grant’s ankle is far more positive).
Rory Hughes gets what you suspect will be his one and only chance to impress on the wing. He is big and strong but there are too many flaws in his defensive game for Vern Cotter to see him as anything other than a long shot at this stage, especially with Sean Lamont and Tim Visser both looking dangerous with the ball last week.
But this is a match against Italy and if Scotland are to win it they will need to stop a muscular Azzurri pack from wreaking the kind of havoc they managed at BT Murrayfield just a few months ago. It is worth remembering that the Scots conceded two tries to the rolling maul that day and conceded another the same way last week against Ireland. Today’s visitors could hardly have announced their weakness any more obviously without taking a full-page advert in La Republica and you can be sure that that area of the Scots’ defence will get a thorough work-out this evening, as forwards coach Jon Humphreys conceded.
“It always remains a concern in the modern game,” said the Welshman. “You see that with mauls, they are a potent attacking weapon for Italy. Look at Treviso, they have been particularly good at it for many years. You never say the problem is resolved because it is always there. You know that if you step off the mark, don’t address it in the right manner, you will come unstuck as we did that day.”
Humphreys is right to be worried. In the recent World Championship Argentina scored a brace using the tactic against the All Blacks. Well executed it is devilishly difficult to stop legally and we are sure to see the tactic (over) utilised in the upcoming World Cup.
Gordon Reid gets a rare chance to show what he can do and a good performance may persuade Cotter to take three looseheads and two tighthead props. He would probably rather it was the other way around but he may conclude that Scotland don’t boast three Test-class tightheads. If Mike Cusack can drop anchor again this evening as he did against Ireland then he should be in contention alongside the South African recruit WP Nel, who is poised to get his first cap off the bench.
According to Humphreys, the Yorkshireman has worked hard in the off season shedding something close to 8kgs and only the uncharitable would point out that the big fella has another 8kgs to go.
Stuart McInally starting at hooker should help scrum stability because he is a big strong athlete who was always destined to play for Scotland even if few people guessed it would be in the front rather than the back row.
His old position at No 8 is filled by the impressive Adam Ashe, with able support from Alasdair Strokosch and another newly “kilted Kiwi” in the form of the Highlanders’ openside John Hardie. A good showing by the specialist “loosie” and Cotter may be tempted to include Hardie in the final 31-man squad. A poor performance this evening will make it mighty difficult for the coach to argue his case.