Fraser Brown: Scotland can plug Sione Tuipulotu gap but big question surrounds problem position

Glasgow Warriors and Scotland hooker writes exclusively for The Scotsman

Scotland’s recent record against Italy paints a pretty one-sided picture in favour of the men in dark blue who have won the last 13 games, but they head to Rome this weekend facing down an Italian team still smarting from letting France off the hook in Lille.

Had Paolo Garbisi’s late penalty gone over then Italy would have been celebrating the greatest result in their Six Nations history. As it was, they came away with a 13-13 draw and will fancy themselves to end their long losing run against the Scots.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

That this fixture has become less of a basement battle in recent years is due to the upturn in Scotland’s fortunes with the calibre of players who have come through and the coaching structures put in place under Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend. They’ve gone from battling it out for fifth or sixth place to finishing third and, this year, trying to push on to the top two.

Scotland have not played what you would consider their full strength team in many of these recent fixtures with Italy, and that again points to their strength. We have been able to rotate slightly in some of those games and still win 13 on the bounce. It’s a good measure of the progress Scotland have made over the last decade.

Having said that, I think Scotland must field their strongest XV this week for various reasons.

Firstly, Italy are a good side, it’s in Rome and you don’t know which Italy are going to turn up. That’s not being disrespectful but after their draw in France, it could go either way. They may be emotionally sapped or they could feel turbo-charged after a game they should have won. They will certainly be looking at their final two games as winnable and if they can get the better of Scotland and Wales it will be their most successful Six Nations ever. That’s a huge motivator.

There will be new combinations in the Scotland team and they need to go in all guns blazing to make sure they win. Sione Tuipulotu, a hugely influential player, is out for the rest of the championship so there’s going to be a new centre partnership and that affects the crucial 10-12-13 axis. A lot of Scotland’s attacking play revolves around the midfield partnership and it is crucial that the new combination hits the ground running.

Thirdly, Scotland need to pick up maximum points to take to Dublin on the final weekend. They have to believe that if they can pick up a bonus point win against Italy and England can do a number on Ireland at Twickenham then the title will be up for grabs on March 16.

Cam Redpath looks like the natural replacement for Sione having been involved from the bench in the first three games. He’s a good player in his own right, powerful in contact and good with ball in hand, but he will need time to work on his relationship with Huw Jones. Cam plays with Finn week in, week out but he hasn’t had a huge amount of game-time alongside Huw.

The other option at 12 is Stafford McDowall. He played well for Glasgow at the weekend in a tough away game against Benetton. Such has been his consistency that there’s not much more that Stafford can do and I’m certain he’ll be in the 23 on Saturday because he can cover 12, 13 and, at a push, probably 15, from the bench.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

On the face of it, it looks like a pretty simple selection, but it is actually a bit more complex because of the combinations involved.

Cam has an established relationship with Finn from Bath and will have spent plenty of time training alongside Huw as well as bits of game time over the past three matches. Stafford, however, trains and plays week in, week out with Huw and they already have time in the saddle at Glasgow this year as a centre partnership. You can’t replace a player of Sione’s ability like for like but Scotland have plenty of quality in reserve.

The only other change I can envisage is in the back row. I think two of the positions are nailed on: Rory Darge will start at seven and Jack Dempsey at eight. But there is still a question around six which has been a problematic position all championship.

It began with uncertainty around Jamie Ritchie retaining the captaincy. Luke Crosbie played at six against Wales, with Jamie at seven. Luke got injured and Matt Fagerson came in to play six against France, with Rory Darge returning from injury at seven and Jamie dropping out. Matt got injured in the French game and was left out for the England game, with Jamie coming back in. He did well but didn’t stand out and I think there’s still a question mark over six.

Matt has been one of Scotland’s best performers over the last two years. He’s so consistent and he’s an absolute scrapper. When he arrived at Glasgow, he was an out-and-out eight - a good ball carrier, good footwork, a decent defender and a lineout jumper. Over the last two-and-a-half years you can see the growing influence Scotland defence coach Steve Tandy has had on him and he’s turned himself into a top quality six.

He now takes on the defensive leadership role with Glasgow and Scotland and his work-rate is phenomenal. Defensively he’s a monster, getting through an absolute mountain of work. He’s still a carrying threat and with the sheer volume of work he gets through I think he should be part of Scotland’s best back row when he’s playing well.

But there’s also Andy Christie and it’s hard to see how you can leave him out because he’s been playing so well for Saracens in the Premiership this season, and in the cameos he’s had for Scotland. If you played Darge and Christie, you would have two natural sevens and they would be a real menace at the breakdown. Although Italy played well against France, they lost the breakdown battle at crucial times, notably in around the French 22 when they went multi-phase. They lacked the speed to get in there and resource the breakdown quickly enough.

So Scotland might look at that and think about having two out-and-out poachers on the pitch as an opportunity to starve Italy of any decent possession and tempo inside the Scotland half.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In terms of the bench, they could go with a six-two forwards and backs split rather than the five-three they’ve had in the first three games. If you had two back rows on the bench you’d have room for Matt Fagerson and Jamie Ritchie, for example. Other than at centre and back row, I don’t expect many other changes from Scotland, injuries permitting.

Italy have impressed me across the board in this Six Nations but their back row in particular has gone well, especially when you consider they lost Seb Negri to injury in the opening game against England.

Scotland will need to be on it from the first whistle on Saturday. If you don’t start well against Italy it allows them to carry the emotion into the game and they can become very difficult to beat after that. If games become scrappy and there are lots of knock-ons and turnovers, it stops your fluidity in attack. It can become very bitty and Italy seem to like that, especially their front five.

If you don’t manage that first ten minutes it allows them to carry that emotion from the anthems straight into the game. But if you are able to start with a bang and really put them under pressure then I think that emotion can be a little bit draining for them. I don’t think that’s too much of a stereotype. There are a lot of really passionate guys in that team and they can find it draining if the game goes flat for them in the first 10-15 minutes. Scotland have to make sure they don’t allow them to use the emotion as fuel.

I take Scotland to win by 19.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.