MARCUS Di Rollo has a greater affinity with Italian rugby than most Scotland internationalists, but the former centre will head into Murrayfield this afternoon hoping not to witness a re-run of his match against the Azzurri six years ago.
Now 34 and coaching Watsonians, his Test career having ended at the 2007 World Cup, Di Rollo looks back fondly on the 21 caps he won in a Scottish midfield that was among the most creative in the last decade. A new back three of Tim Visser, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg inspires fresh hope in the Scottish faithful, including Di Rollo, who believes that Scotland could be on the verge of releasing its most potent attack for many years.
But he knows the pitfalls of getting it wrong against Italy, the country of his family’s roots, only too well. In 2007, he was part of the Scottish back line sent out by coach Frank Hadden with tactics to out-smart the Italian defence, only for it to come horribly unstuck with three tries conceded in the opening seven minutes.
“That is a horrible memory,” admits Di Rollo. “I still think the tactics were right, but the execution let us down badly and, unfortunately, that is often the story with us.
“Italy at that time employed a rush defence and so we had a game-plan around chipping the ball over them to make them slow down, with another tactic to move the ball wide quickly and throw a long high pass over the outside centre, who was the player leading that rush defence, and into the acres of space left outside him.
“As I say, the tactics would have been good if we’d executed them properly. But the first time Phil [Godman] went for a chip, it was charged down, and then we opted for the long pass wide and it was intercepted and that was that! We gave them a 21-0 head start and, though, we came back we still lost heavily [37-17].”
That remains Italy’s solitary win away from home in the championship, but one that they hang on to as a great reason to believe when they head for Scotland. Di Rollo experienced victory against the Azzurri too, the year before, but even that was a tough affair.
“They always are. I don’t remember being part of a win that was comfortable and I don’t remember as a supporter ever sitting back and enjoying a Scotland game with Italy. I’m hoping that’s going to change this weekend because I think this could be a cracker, with the way both teams are set up now, but we have to do a lot better at the contact area than we did against England to have a chance.
“Scotland have a great back row with Johnnie Beattie playing well and, after the way they played last week, I’d expect them to be better, and for us to get parity up front this week. Then if we get the ball to the back three we have an attack that is shaping up to be very good.”
The key is bringing that trio into the game and one wonders how Di Rollo might have enjoyed playing with that breadth of talent on the end of his pass. Scotland now have two more physical centres in Matt Scott and Sean Lamont, and there is a belief in some areas that, to be effective and not leak tries, one has to be built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Di Rollo, unsurprisingly, thinks otherwise.
“I enjoyed trying to be creative when I played with Scotland and, while sometimes we were successful and sometimes not, I don’t agree with people who say there’s no place for smaller backs in the game these days. My critics used to say I was too small, but, while I was only 13 stones or so when I first played for Scotland, I am six feet one inch, and, at my peak, weighed nearly 15 stones, so I wasn’t a wee guy.
“But look at the New Zealand back division that played against us in the autumn. That was possibly the smallest back division I’ve seen in recent years and they certainly didn’t have a problem breaking through our defensive line and creating tries.
“Smaller guys tend to be the more skilful attackers, largely because, as they develop through their teen years, they have to work harder on their skill-sets than bigger guys. They don’t have the luxury of being able to batter through defenders, so they have to rely on their skills.
“I worked hard on my passing and being a link between the inside backs and the back three and, for Scotland to be effective, I think we need good distributors in the centres. It’s not easy because we don’t have the choice other countries do and, while Sean [Lamont] might not be the best distributor, there are few players who can match his strengths in other areas.
“But it is important that we find a way to supply Tim [Visser] and Sean Maitland and Hoggy as much as possible this weekend, because those three have real strengths that can hurt Italy. We have to do it having got a good foundation up front first, but not only from our set-piece and first-phase attacks, but also from turnovers. We should be recognising that we have players like Hoggy who love to counter-attack, and have the ability to do it very quickly and be dangerous.”
Di Rollo will be there. Now married, with son Rocco and another son on the way this summer, the 34-year-old is still in touch with his Italian cousins, but has no doubt around allegiances today.
He added: “I went to Treviso and had a look around the club when I came out of school, but then Edinburgh offered me a contract and that was it, so who knows how things might have turned out if that hadn’t happened.
“But I was born in Scotland, schooled here and always aspired to play for Scotland, so this is my country. It was great to watch Italy beat France last week and they are definitely my second team, but we need a Scotland win this weekend.
“I am looking forward to the game this weekend. What I remember most about playing Italy was that they could suck you into a very physical game, a tight game with very little in it, and you had to look to be creative and find something that could confuse them.
“If we can get it right up front, reduce the errors and penalties, we have players out wide that can really confuse them in defence. But Italy are now playing a quicker game and wider as well, so I expect Italy to cause us problems. It should be a good game, and, hopefully, with a brighter start for Scotland than that one six years ago!”