Scotland have been tied to Italy in a three-legged race for far too long, competing not for honours at the top of the Six Nations ladder but simply trying to avoid the wooden spoon at the ugly end of the table. It’s like standing next to someone with bad breath. Every time you edge away from them they seem to edge closer again.
Only twice in the history of the Six Nations has someone other than Scotland or Italy finished bottom of the pile.
Every time the Scots row some distance from of our traditional rivals, invisible elastic drags the two nations back together. With two good wins at home over Ireland and Wales the Scots imagined themselves untouchable by the Azzurri. After last Saturday’s rout at Twickenham they are no longer quite so certain.
Italy grow an arm and a leg when they play Scotland because they believe that they can win, which is not to say that they believe that they will win. Italy will turn up at Murrayfield expecting to lose so Scotland’s task is to ensure that they are not disappointed.
Deny the visitors a toe-hold in the game with a solid set piece, including re-starts, and strong maul defence. Stop the first driven lineout in its tracks, even better drive it backwards or win a turnover, and the Scots nullify at a stroke the main weapons in Italy’s limited arsenal.
As England will testify, we can expect something a little different from Conor O’Shea’s team. They may try to disrupt the breakdown when the referee calls “tackle” rather than “ruck”, although you hope that Scotland are better prepared than England were. Italy know they lack a cutting edge in the backs so they will try and take easy points with drop goals when they are in the Scotland red zone and milk penalties at every opportunity. They may try and set up driving mauls in the middle of the field, in the shadow of Scotland’s posts, in the hope that the Scots halt it illegally or edge offside.
The little scrum-half Edoardo Gori is a live wire and is not afraid to have a dart, his half-back partner Carlo Canna takes the ball to the line and the breakaway trio of Sergio Parisse, Braam Steyn and Maxime Mbanda have a nice balance about them but there is one stand out statistic from Italy’s last game that you can’t ignore… they missed 55 tackles in all, some sort of record for the competition. (Scotland missed just 21 tackles at Twickenham.)
If you run straight at Italy they will knock you over. The secret of the French success lay in their employing big men who have quick feet and Les Bleus varied the point and the angle of attack in a one-sided second half. Once you get behind the Italian defence life becomes a lot easier so expect Tim Visser, pictured, a big winger with Fred Astaire feet, to pop up anywhere in attack, especially on Finn Russell’s inside shoulder, as well as the “wrong” wing.
The wet weather that is forecast, the loss of big Richie Gray and Italy’s perennial desperation all mitigate against an easy win. At half-time Italy have been leading in three of their four matches to date but they have fallen away sharply after the break and, in the final match of the championship, every team is running on empty so any advantage tends to be magnified.
If Scotland start as they did against Ireland they will cruise to victory. If they start as they did against England it will be a long afternoon’s waltz around the dance floor with our old partner.