In THESE professional days, players are told what to say and when to say it. Journalists have fun spotting the key phrases/words that the players have been told to repeat, so it is rare that someone says something that makes you sit up and check your hearing aid just to make sure it is working properly. Stuart Hogg managed just that this week when the Scottish full-back did his stuff in front of the Scottish scribblers. What did he make, the full-back was quizzed, of Saturday’s opponents?
“They are a brilliant team and we have watched them closely over the past few weeks,” was his opening observation and he continued in the same vein. “They are a side which mustn’t be taken lightly as they have a cracking set of forwards. Our forwards will have to match them as they are really physical. It’s going to be a massive test for us.”
Given the two extremes of under-estimating or over-estimating the calibre of the opposition Hogg has chosen the correct course of action but anyone running an objective eye over the Italian squad sees something different.
In the last two years Italy have played 21 international matches and won three of them. Eight tries have slipped past them in the last two matches alone, and they are blooding two new players in the backline on Saturday who replace experienced ones. Italy are some way short of being brilliant but they are proud and they are capable and they will target Scotland on Saturday as their best chance of a victory. Eight years ago they arrived at Murrayfield as long-odds outsiders, two interceptions and one charge down later and the Azzurri were dancing down the Via Appia. In 2012 they so comprehensively beat the Scots in Rome that the visitors rarely emerged from their own 22 throughout a painful second half.
And two years ago they might have won had one final pass in the second half gone to hand and changed the momentum of the match. Instead Hogg gambled and came up trumps. The Scottish full-back, directed by Greig Laidlaw, intercepted that Luciano Orquera pass to Tommaso Benvenuti ten metres from his own line and he went the length to score the try of the championship. Game over.
“Going back to the Italian game a couple of years ago, it was a 14-pointer of a try, as if it didn’t come off then they would have scored under the sticks,” says Hogg who did something similar against Wales last time out.
“Last week was about playing off our turnovers, that’s what we want to do. A big thing from [assistant coach] Matty Taylor is about seizing opportunities at turnovers. Days gone by would have seen us taking the penalty and kicking for the corner. So for Finn [Russell] to have the instinct to pick the ball up and play on is when these opportunities come up.”
There is a feeling that Italy run out of steam late in the game. Certainly they held on to Ireland’s coat tails for the best part of an hour and England only really racked up the tries in the final 30 minutes.
The Scots too appear to dip in the second half where they were corralled inside their own territory for much of the second 40 in Paris and again Wales bossed much of the third quarter of the match with the Scots only rousing themselves when presented with an almost impossible ten-point mountain to climb.
One weapon Italy will utilise is the high ball, a simple tactic that brought plenty of success for Wales. Several times the red shirts reclaimed their own kicks, not least when Dan Biggar rose above Finn Russell who was carded for the crime of not jumping.
If Russell made a pig’s ear of that one then Laidlaw did little better with several others although what the smallest man of the field is doing catching high balls is anyone’s guess. “We didn’t have the greatest of days under the high ball against Wales but their kick chase was really good and they really applied pressure to us,” says Hogg. “We have worked hard this week on the boys in the front line having a job to do as well.
“We are working hard to give the back three every opportunity to catch the ball. I was disappointed it didn’t happen at the weekend but in times gone by we have made mistakes and not realised it but that’s no longer the case.”
Scotland are a better side than Italy at the moment and they enjoy the crucial advantage of playing at home so Hogg wholeheartedly agrees when one journalist suggests that this is a “must-win” match.
Various sources have claimed that Scotland should have won the first two matches but the truth is that they didn’t do enough to deserve either and pointing the finger at the referee doesn’t help anyone, as Hogg appears to confirm.
“We need to look back at ourselves,” he says. “We shouldn’t have been in an area where we were chasing the game and needed that four seconds or whatever was left. We should have had the game done and dusted by then as we created plenty of opportunities but didn’t take them and hopefully this weekend we can make amends for that.”
The home side will start Saturday’s match at BT Murrayfield as firm favourites, and rightly so, even if they sport that tag with all the enthusiasm reserved for a “kick me hard” label pinned to their back.