Analysing The Opposition: Forza Azzurri?

Murrayfield: 4.00pm. We will know by then if Scotland have beaten the Italians at home and handed them the wooden spoon.

Simply put, if we ignore performance and just look at the table then any kind of win will take us off the bottom and send the Italians back to Rome with another bit of wood and send Scotland to the pub with a shaky sense of relief. Performance is no substitute for victory at this late stage.

Good, then, because last week Italy turned in a huge underdog performance to topple the French. Indeed, the ‘Siege of Flaminio’ is possibly the most significant victory in modern times for the Azzurri and they come to Edinburgh with a brittle confidence we in Scotland are all too familiar with.

They are happy to make changes to that winning team, too. In the pack Italy have dropped Barbieri for Derbyshire, Perugini and Ghiraldini are in for Lo Cicero and Festuccia in the front row and Geldenhuys replaces gnarled campaigner Dellape. In the backs Burton switches with Orquera (who will undoubtedly get on) while Sgarbi takes Garcia’s spot in the centre:

Italy: A Masi (Racing Metro); T Benvenuti (Treviso), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), A Sgarbi (Treviso), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais); K Burton (Treviso), F Semenzato (Treviso); S Perugini (Aironi), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), C Del Fava (Aironi), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi), A Zanni (Treviso), P Derbyshire (Treviso), S Parisse (Stade Francais).

Replacements: C Festuccia (Racing Metro), A Lo Cicero (Racing Metro), V Bernabo (Treviso), R Barbieri (Treviso), P Canavosio (Aironi), L Orquera (Brive), L McLean (Treviso)

The thing about Italy, though, is that they feed off the perception other teams have of them. For example everyone thinks of Italy as a team praying for scrums and in love with tight play. So changing two of a winning front row and swapping two other personnel would be strange for such a team, no?

You only have to look at ‘Castro’ being easily popped out of the scrum against France in the 22nd minute or the way they were twisted at will to see that they are not in love with scrums. Nor, in fact, do they pick and go constantly. For Italy the key to performance comes from something different: Front foot ball.

For all the misplaced hype surrounding the one-dimensional and labouring Castrogiovanni or the exciting and opportunistic Masi two players hold the key to getting Italy pumping up field and the unusually vocal Graham Steadman will have highlighted these two all week.

Everything revolves around Parisse and Canale.

From a shuddering scrum you can expect Parrisse to still plough on 10m or use his skills coming round the corner, at pace, to still slip a pop to a man in a better position. He is one of the best players to come out of the northern hemisphere in the last 15 years. However he cannot be everywhere and it is a credit to Mallet for persisting with Canale and changing those around him rather than moving him from 13 because his movement and lines of running open up space for someone like Masi to come onto and he often digs Orquera/Burton out of trouble when they sling ugly passes his way.  

When both of these players have momentum they can create space and only then can Semenzato snipe, Zanni appear on a shoulder or Masi pick a line.

For Scotland it is vital to cut their cloth accordingly. They must keep their defensive shape, pushing up quickly to stop the ball coming through Burton’s hands easily, and they must also push the scrum straight back or at least give them the twist so that Parisse is running towards Brown and Barclay (i.e. ‘open’, because if he goes blind he has the beating of Hines). If I were a cynical man I would say it is also an option to give away scrum penalties near our 10m line because Bergamasco is not a natural kicker, despite last week’s heroics. If I were cynical.

The good news for Scotland comes in two parts, though.

Firstly, if we can reduce this game to a slugfest, nullifying Canale, Parisse and Semenzato then I think we will win. Most importantly though, secondly, Jackson can use his game to score tries against the Italians.

After watching the French game back it appears that on several occasions the Italians had awful defence. Shapeless. What was happening was that after 4 phases without the ball the Italian defensive line narrowed. Not only this, however, because as they narrowed the men wider out started to tread water while those in the middle pushed up. Clerc was able to pick his run for his try because of this and if Rougerie hadn’t been so selfish (although Zanni’s desperate cover tackle was exceptional) France would have had another easy try.

If this happens on Saturday then after 4 bludgeoning phases with the likes of Gray, Brown, Lamont and Ford playmaker Jackson can run himself and slide the ball to Ansbro who should have the pick of Evans, Danielli and Paterson wide out and in space.

If this is the case then everything else comes down to individual brilliance. I just hope for the sake of Scottish sanity and those lucky enough to spring for a WC ticket that the individuals with the chance are brave enough to take it and Scottish enough to make me happy. A lot rests on this last game and Murrayfield needs something to cheer.

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