Italy v Scotland: Ali Price braced for early onslaught as he hits 50-cap landmark
Scotland are understandably keen to avoid going where none of their rivals have gone in the last seven years. No-one wants to be the team that loses to the Azzurri whose run of defeats now stretches to 35.
Their last victory in the championship came at Murrayfield on February 28, 2015. Only Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson from that Scotland team will line up in Rome on Saturday as Gregor Townsend’s team look to win a seventh consecutive Six Nations match against the Italians.
The hosts’ losing run is the longest in the history of the competition and the worrying thing for coach Kieran Crowley is that there is precious little sign of improvement. Italy’s failure to score a try against either Ireland or England last month is the first time they’ve done so in back-to-back Six Nations matches since 2009.
The vultures continue to circle and there are some who would love to see South Africa take their place in the championship.
Italy are desperate to silence such talk and a win over Scotland would be the perfect riposte. While their Six Nations record is wretched, the hosts can take some comfort from their performances in this fixture both recently and historically. Seven of their 12 victories in the Six Nations have come against the Scots and while you have to go back to 2013 for the last time they defeated Scotland in Rome, the Azzurri made a game of it the last time the sides met on Italian soil.
On that occasion the venue was Florence and the competition was the Autumn Nations Cup. Scotland eventually won 28-17 but had to withstand an early Italian onslaught and Ali Price expects the home side to be similarly fired up on Saturday.
“We’ve spoken a few times this week about that first 20 minutes - it’s going to be massive,” said the scrum-half who will win his 50th cap at the Stadio Olimpico. “Historically in games between us and Italy over the last few years, the longer they stay in the game the tougher it becomes.
“Even going back to the game in Florence during the Autumn Nations Cup, they were ahead at half-time. It becomes a very tricky game. They’re good players. So for us it’s about putting in a professional performance.”
Price is a veteran of this fixture and has a perfect record of seven wins from seven. He knows the hosts will try to tap into the emotion of the occasion. Covid restrictions mean the crowd will be limited to around 45,000 but Price still expects a raucous atmosphere in what is one of Europe’s great amphitheatres.
“The bus ride there is amazing, seeing the sights of Rome and seeing everyone making their way to the ground,” he said. “When you hear the Italian anthem it’s full of passion, they’re a passionate nation and you get that from the guys when they sing to the right of you.
“It can be quite a hostile place to play, especially when they get their tails up and get some energy behind them on the field. A few boys have had that experience and we’ve spoken about that as well, what we can do as a team to nullify that, and create our energy within that.”
It will be a landmark occasion for Price as he reaches his half-century of caps. His debut came as a replacement against Georgia in Kilmarnock during the 2016 autumn internationals in a 43-16 win. He cites away victories over Australia, in Sydney, and England and France last season as highlights but the first cap was special to the 28-year-old.
“It’s a crazy journey. I remember Rugby Park so well - it’s like it was yesterday and it’s flown by, to be honest with you.
“That November series was my first involvement in the squad and I was on the bench for the first two games and didn’t manage to get on. And so come the third game, the last game of the series, I was ready, I was so excited.
“I remember taking the first step on to the field and being like ‘I’ve done it, I’ve achieved it, I’ve got there’. Luckily we got a maul penalty quite deep, the Georgians weren’t back ten and I managed to take a quick tap and I think it was Hoggy who eventually got on the end of a score. So it was nice to have a bit of an impact in the game.
“But I loved every second of it. I just wanted more then: I wanted to go from one to two, then two to five and five to ten and so on.
“To be sat here now, running out for my 50th tomorrow, is amazing. It’s a dream come true and it will be a very proud moment.”
Only Finn Russell and Hogg of the starting XV have reached the 50-cap mark and all three will be expected to bear the load in Italy. The trio have not performed at their peak in recent weeks and the Price-Russell axis will be key to Scotland’s success or otherwise.
The stand-off failed to ignite against France but Price has backed his old compadre to come good in Rome.
“Finn is Finn. We have had a good week’s training and he is just as keen as we all are to put in a performance,” said the scrum-half. “Sometimes games don’t go the way we want them to, they don’t go the way we have prepped and we don’t execute how we want to. That’s life.
“Finn and I work very closely together and we work well together. We will try and show the best of ourselves and hopefully we get the result.”
On the back of losses to Wales and France anything other than a win in Rome would be unthinkable for a Scotland side who have struggled to hit the heights in this campaign, despite opening with a victory over England. The forecast is favourable and conditions should suit the likes of Price, Russell, Hogg, Darcy Graham, Kyle Steyn and, if he comes off the bench, Ben Vellacott.
They may need to withstand early pressure but Scotland should pull away with something to spare in the second half.
Scotland (v Italy, Guinness Six Nations, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Saturday, 2.15pm GMT. TV: live on ITV)
15. Stuart Hogg (c); 14. Darcy Graham, 13. Chris Harris, 12. Sam Johnson, 11. Kyle Steyn; 10. Finn Russell, 9. Ali Price; 1. Pierre Schoeman, 2. George Turner, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Sam Skinner, 5. Grant Gilchrist, 6. Rory Darge, 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: 16. Stuart McInally, 17. Allan Dell, 18. WP Nel, 19. Jamie Hodgson, 20. Magnus Bradbury, 21. Ben Vellacott, 22. Adam Hastings, 23. Sione Tuipulotu.
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