TOMORROW will be a day of firsts. Two Italian backs will be taking their bow on the international stage, winger Michele Visentin and centre Enrico Bacchin, while it’s difficult to know quite where to start with Scotland’s stand-in stand-off Peter Horne.
Although he already has six caps to his credit, tomorrow’s match will mark the little Glasgow midfielder’s first ever start in the Six Nations Championship, his first Test appearance on home soil and his first ever international start in the No 10 shirt.
His previous two appearances for Scotland at ten won’t evoke many happy memories. Twice he came off the bench in the summer of 2013. First up Scotland finished second to Samoa and then, one week later, against South Africa he had to be carted off the field in Nelspruit following an ugly knee injury.
After six starts in the shirt for Glasgow this season Horne has more recent experience as ring master. Over the last two weeks he has orchestrated Glasgow’s runaway win over Zebre in Italy, a good omen, and their markedly less comprehensive victory over the Ospreys last Saturday when Horne’s four penalties went a long way to securing the points. He won’t be kicking at goal tomorrow, at least not while Greig Laidlaw is on the field, but a polished performance that day did his credentials for the big stage no harm at all.
“I think that helped put my case forward,” he says of his recent run-out. “It was obviously a big game that went down to the wire and we did well to come out with a ‘W’ so, yeah, I think that will have helped my cause.”
The emergence of Finn Russell as a genuine international class stand-off, the first since goodness knows when, has been rightly celebrated but expecting Scottish rugby to produce two playmakers at the same time was obviously asking too much. Horne is a more natural second five, a ball-playing inside centre, albeit one that utilises much of a fly-half’s skill set.
According to his coach, Horne, along with Edinburgh’s Greig Tonks, was in the selection mix to inherit the No 10 shirt in Russell’s enforced absence after a disciplinary tribunal upheld his original two-week ban for a dangerous tackle on Dan Biggar. Russell and his immediate understudy are good mates and it is obviously not the way that Horne planned to make his Murrayfield debut.
“It’s obviously really tough on him [Russell],” said his replacement. “You don’t ever like to see your mates getting banned. He is a good friend of mine and I think it’s really harsh. But I can’t go into the game worrying about that kind of thing. An opportunity has come up and I need to go out and make the most of it. It was a one-off situation. Hopefully it won’t happen again. It was just a bit of bad luck. We haven’t wasted too much time on it.”
Horne is an intelligent footballer with a good brain and an accurate but not particularly long left peg. However in an era when giants roam the rugby field, his lack of pace and physicality at this level will be given a thorough examination by Italy tomorrow. Not least by his own opposite number, because the 17-stone Kiwi stand-off Kelly Haimona is Italy’s answer to the question: “Who ate all the pizzas?”
If he runs straight and hard at Horne the Scot is conceding somewhere between three and four stones in body weight as well as several inches in height. Not since Canada’s Gareth Rees sported ballast more often seen in the Rovers Return has an international fly-half required an extra-large shirt.
“Yeah, he’s a big fella,” Horne agrees, “but I think in the majority of my career I have never been the biggest guy so it’s something I am used to. I will look forward to that physical battle and making sure I get stuck into him and not give him any gain line. It’s something I really look forward to so we’ll see how it goes.”
The whole Horne family will be at Murrayfield to check on Peter’s progress and, doubtless, to offer him their advice. He still tags father Garry as a huge influence on his career. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” while younger brother George played his part in the Scotland U20’s win over Wales last weekend and gives his big brother lessons in drop goals, which could be handy if last year’s game is anything to go by.
It is a daunting one but Horne’s task tomorrow is made easier by playing inside the entire Glasgow back division; scrum-half Laidlaw the only starting back who doesn’t play his regular rugby at Scotstoun. “The guys were talking about the pressure I was under but if you look about the squad we’ve got some fantastic players all around me and they make my job easier,” says Horne.
“I’ve got dangerous runners everywhere. Mark’s (Bennett) on fire at the moment, (Stuart) Hoggy has been making breaks left, right and centre with Tommy (Seymour) and Sean (Lamont) on the wings so I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really excited about just giving these guys the ball and seeing what they can do.”
On a day of firsts, Scotland’s greenhorn stand-off will hope to orchestrate the team’s first victory in this championship.
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