Scotland have lost their last two games but a win at Stadio Olimpico would see them regain momentum and create an opportunity to travel to Dublin on the last weekend of the championship looking for a first victory in Ireland since 2010. Three wins in this season’s Six Nations is still within Scotland’s grasp despite the setbacks against Wales and France.
For Italy, Scotland at home will be seen as their best opportunity to achieve a victory in the Six Nations, something that has eluded them for over 2500 days.
Italy will be reeling from their loss to Ireland. A bizarre sequence of events and a quirk of the law left the Italians having to play most of the game with 13 men after their starting hooker, Gianmarco Lucchesi, left the field injured and his replacement, Hame Faiva, was red-carded shortly after coming on. They had looked promising in the first 15 minutes against the Irish, combative, and physical in defence, and although I think Ireland would always have run out winners, the red card ruined the game.
It has not been a good couple of weeks for Italian rugby. Reports emerged that the Six Nations were looking to replace them with South Africa, a move that would surely destroy top level rugby in Italy. The rumours were quickly rebuffed by the Six Nations hierarchy, but there’s no smoke without fire as they say!
Italy will have something to prove against Scotland who are looking to bounce back from the home loss to France.
I felt the first half at BT Murrayfield was more even than many others did. France started well, Scotland didn’t. The visitors’ first try came from poor transition work from a Scotland kick down the middle which led directly to a line break and quick ball for the powerful French front five to exploit. The second came from good set-piece attack and some excellent handling skills. On both occasions Scotland will know they could have done better to stop the French momentum, but I thought the way they responded to the early pressure was excellent.
Scotland held onto the ball well and got into their attacking shape. Once into the French 22, I thought they were powerful and dynamic in their carry work and really had the French defence under pressure, forcing them to concede penalty after penalty. Initially unlucky not to score from Ali Price’s snipe, Scotland kept their composure and did get the try through Rory Darge who was outstanding on his first start.
But Test matches are won and lost on small margins and the momentum Scotland had built through the second quarter of the game was sucked away by two key moments just before half-time.
It began with the missed opportunity when Stuart Hogg was unable to collect Chris Harris’ long pass and it was followed almost immediately by France’s third try. It’s far too simplistic to suggest that the Scotland chance was an easy four on one. There were two French defenders tracking back, Ali Price had just emerged into the picture and the fourth Scottish player, Pierre Schoeman, was probably too far back to be effective. Hogg, Scotland’s all-time leading try scorer, was free on the left wing and screaming for the ball. I think Harris chose the right option but the execution was slightly off.
Regardless of performances, Scotland have lost their last two games and I think it’s inevitable that there will be changes for Italy. Scotland have the best strength in depth that they have had in the professional era and the competition within the squad means there is an increase in expectation to perform at your best. Unlike in years gone by, there are genuine options in every position, no one should be - and no one is - guaranteed to be selected the following week unless they perform at the highest level. This naturally raises the standards of the whole team; you should always feel like every game could be your last for Scotland.
I thought our front five performed impressively against the behemoths in the French pack. The lineout functioned well and I thought Scotland were the superior team at scrum time throughout.
There will be changes again in the back row. Hopefully Hamish Watson will have recovered from illness and I’m sure that Darge will be involved again after his outstanding game at the weekend. Darge and Watson at six and seven provide Scotland with carrying power as well as an enormous threat at the breakdown. If Matt Fagerson is able to recover from the foot injury he picked up in Wales then I would think he would go straight back in at No 8.
The key selections will probably come in middle of the backline, at 12 and 13. Scotland have an impressive array of players to choose from at centre and this selection could be key in how they create the space out wide for the likes of Duhan van der Merwe, Darcy Graham and Hoggy to exploit.
We still have one of the best and meanest defences in the world. This French team may well be the number one attacking team on the planet, but I know there will be disappointment at how easy it was at times for them to break through and I’m sure there will be a huge focus placed on defence ahead of the Italy game. Scotland’s pack is transforming itself into one of the best in world rugby and are more than capable of gaining dominance up front, at scrum time and from their carrying ability.
If Scotland can create real threat in the midfield and supply quick ball and space for their strike runners out wide then they should have far too much for Italy.