Italy v Scotland: Home advantage boost for hosts

Greig Laidlaw address the troops prior to the crunch match in Italy. Picture: SNS
Greig Laidlaw address the troops prior to the crunch match in Italy. Picture: SNS
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Competitive Italian side can’t wait to face stuttering Scotland

THIS is what Scotland’s RBS Six Nations campaign has come down to: the annual battle with Italy for the wooden spoon.

It would be nice to approach Scotland’s third game in the 2014 championship with more positivity, but no-one requires the imagination of a journey to Middle Earth with a band of hobbits to understand why the Scots’ opening displays this year have generated so little positive thinking. Hordes of Scotland supporters have spent many pounds and many days travelling to the ‘Eternal City’ – fitting for Scots’ eternal optimism – but what was once a joyful trip has become, like any other, one made in hope rather than expectation.

Debates about direction were reignited in the wake of the 20-0 drubbing by England and they must continue once the Six Nations fanfare has died down and lead to significant change.

What many who only come to rugby at these times of national performance perhaps do not realise – at least judging by the waves of ignorance in recent spoutings – is that such investigation and overhaul has been ongoing since Mark Dodson took over as SRU chief executive from Gordon McKie in 2011, and Scott Johnson, more suited to the role of director of rugby than head coach, is already well down the track of forming new academies and more game-time to address the issues hampering development. What the fresh campaigning could do, however, is increase the momentum of change and push aside the self-interest that continue to kill off proposed improvements at birth.

But that is for April and May. For now, Johnson has to put aside his own feeling that he did not wish this job, that he was merely a stop-gap until Vern Cotter arrives, and find a way to motivate a group of players far more talented than they have looked so far.

Italy cannot wait for kick-off this afternoon. Their captain, Sergio Parisse, has been criticised for trying to do too much on his own in transforming Italy from a team able to compete for long spells with any opponent to one capable of driving forward to victory. He has tried to respond by demanding more of his team-mates and insists the Azzurri will not become a title contender until he is less of a stand-out figure, and one of a number of quality players with the ability to pierce opposition defences.

Today, he and another talisman, Martin Castrogiovanni, will surpass the Italian cap record of 103 held by Andrea Lo Cicero, another prop and favourite of Italy’s formative days in the championship. Castrogiovanni made his Six Nations debut 11 years ago and Parisse his in 2004, and both have experienced far more Roman wins over Scotland than defeats.

The statistic that Scots might not want to digest over breakfast is that Italy have beaten them five times in Rome to just two Scottish triumphs since that unforgettable first Six Nations match in 2000, where Ian McGeechan’s side went down 34-20. Scotland have lost on their last three visits here.

In this championship, Italy have also been better. They had their hopes finally killed off in the Millennium Stadium only by a third Leigh Halfpenny penalty seven minutes from time in a 23-15 defeat, while they were also firmly in the match with France, dominating possession, territory, the scrums, lineouts and even the discipline stats, but were left ruing a couple of slips in the third quarter that handed the French the initiative in an eventual 30-10 home win.

Tommy Allan, the former Scotland under-20 cap, has been handed the chance to grow into the Italian No 10 berth never filled convincingly since the retirement of Diego Dominguez, and he has struggled with the boot. Intriguingly, Allan is being used sparingly in Italy’s attack, as they seek to employ a number of players at first receiver, but the youngster is a confident player and will no doubt relish the chance to show Scotland what they might have had.

He also has one of Europe’s most exciting young centres outside him in Michele Campagnaro, who like Allan and winger Angelo Esposito is just 20 – there is talk of Italy finally developing a genuinely threatening back line.

Scotland have their own promising centre, Matt Scott, back in harness, and while the set-piece battle is all that has been spoken of in the past two weeks – rightly, as Scotland’s hopes against Ireland and England have foundered here and it is where Italy’s strength begins – the midfield combinations will have a critical influence on today’s result.

Management have shown faith in half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Duncan Weir, and they are eager to prove that, with a decent supply of possession, they can run the Italians ragged, while Scott and Alex Dunbar are similarly determined to rekindle the partnership of last summer that made life difficult for South Africa. It is asking a lot of Scott to find top form after just over one match of any sort since a two-month injury spell, but this is Test rugby in Scotland – with such paucity of resource, time is a luxury players rarely have.

The front five simply have to perform in the scrum and lineout to give Scotland a chance of upsetting the odds, but with Richie Gray’s 6ft 9in and 20-stone frame back in the pack and Scott Lawson keen to show the coaches that Ross Ford is not the only hooker available, we could see some fireworks.

Italy are without Mauro Bergamasco, but have the experienced Roberto Barbieri and Alessandro Zanni to face Glasgow’s inexperienced pair Chris Fusaro and Ryan Wilson. In French coach Jacques Brunel they also have a pragmatic chief, but one willing to give youth its head in front of what will be a packed Stadio Olimpico baying for the blood of the one championship team they are confident of beating.

Brunel warned: “Last year we conceded 34 points at Murrayfield, so that’s something we have to take into consideration. Recent results haven’t been going Scotland’s way, but they are still one of the teams we seem to have most difficulty with. They have character and always play with determination. They will be tough opponents.”

He also plays a neat line in respecting opponents. Italy will expect to win on account of their record in recent years and Scotland’s form, but these games are invariably close in Rome. The last four results between the sides here have been 13-10 to Scotland, 23-20 to Italy, 16-12 to Italy and 13-6 to Italy, and most supporters will tell you that Scotland hardly fired a shot in those matches.

With so many young players on parade, two teams who believe victory is attainable and a firm pitch, this could be a pulsating clash with some great rugby on show. It could also be a forward-dominated arm-wrestle. But, looking at it positively, negatively or realistically, today is undoubtedly a pivotal moment in Scotland’s championship, in the desire of interim coach Johnson to be taken seriously and, one suspects, in the careers of some of these Scotland players. It is not a day for shrinking violets.

Italy: Luke McLean, Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Leonardo Sarto, Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori; Sergio Parisse (captain), Roberto Barbieri, Alessandro Zanni, Joshua Furno, Quintin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovani, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alberto de Marchi.

Replacements: Davide Giazzon, Matias Aguero, Lorenzo Cittadini, Marco Bortolami, Paul Derbyshire, Tobias Botes, Luciano Orquera, Tommaso Iannone.

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Sean Lamont, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw; Ryan Grant, Scott Lawson, Moray Low, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro, Johnnie Beattie.

Replacements: Ross Ford, Alasdair Dickinson, Geoff Cross, Tim Swinson, David Denton, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Taylor, Max Evans.

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