A few years ago this is the sort of game we’d look at and say “we’ll put 50 on them” and then stand dumbfounded as Scotland failed to turn up until Dan Parks got us out of jail with a last minute kick. More often than not in recent years, Italy have been gaining the edge and victories are never a sure thing. They aren’t great travellers though so Scotland might be able to gain an edge.
Scotland vs Italy games can be a little schizophrenic. Here is a list similar in nature:
1. Remember, this is not the Six Nations
It’s a development tour, so this is not do or die. Both sides have a bunch of younger players and have only fired sporadically on tour. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter that much. So don’t get tight. Scotland showed glimpses against South Africa of what this young team could grow into given the next two years of solid playing time together. A game played with confidence and unfettered by pressure, somewhat out of the glare of Six Nations publicity, would be perfect to lay down a marker for the Autumn, to build some experience you can rely on over the next couple of years. Relax and enjoy it.
However there is still a wooden spoon of sorts at stake, and ranking points up for grabs. So don’t relax too much.
2. Keep the game away from Parisse; don’t get sucked into Italy’s plans
Like Argentina, Italy are arch-masters of dragging Scotland into a dogfight, and those tend to be the sort of games we don’t emerge from with much credit.
Sometimes this seems nigh on impossible when Parisse makes a game his own and seems to be everywhere in attack and defence, and things have only become harder with the rise of Zanni. But to have a chance, Scotland have to keep the ball in hand in the early phases and explore through the midfield and wide channels. Kicking for territory is all very well against a team like the Boks but this could be a much tighter game and Scotland need to be in possession when the whistle goes for the next arbitrary penalty. Plus, in Scott, Dunbar and Lamont (and Visser lurking on the bench) there are some big-sized ball-players that could break the line and make good use of any space.
This point is also about concentration: drop the ball every two minutes and Italy get a scrum to have a crack at us.
3. Stay Fit
A brief bit of injury news: Peter Horne has suffered an ACL injury and is set for a long spell on the sidelines, for around nine months. It is hoped that Warriors’ hooker Pat MacArthur, who was injured during Scotland’s defeat to Samoa, will be fit for the start of the new season. Back-row forward Ryan Wilson, who also had to leave the Scotland tour party early, is to undergo further tests at Spire Murrayfield Hospital on a shoulder injury picked up in the defeat to South Africa.
Scotland have struggled without an openside since before the Six Nations but they have to do the best they can. Other areas of the team are down to the bare bones, with Fraser Brown set to be the biggest rags-to-riches story since Billy Ray Valentine if he gets a first cap at hooker.
Due to the makeshift look to bits of the team, early injuries for Scotland as we saw against Samoa will disrupt the plans and see Scotland on the back foot. We find it hard enough to beat Italy with a full team.
4. Keep the ball moving quickly
That means you, Greig Laidlaw. Last weekend we saw what the little 9 can do given the right attitude and he put in a fairly phenomenal defensive performance against the beasts of South Africa while getting the ball moving quickly into the hands of the right ball carriers – Matt Scott and Tim Swinson to name but two who made regular line breaks. He may be less unfamiliar with Tom Heathcote who returns at 10 but another good performance with quick ball and not too much (none please) aimless box-kicking could stave off the challenge of Henry Pyrgos for a while longer.
With Italy less successful counter attackers than, say, New Zealand, there may be a temptation to just play territory all the time. Please resist – it’s the last game of the season, let us see some rugby when circumstance allows.
5. Compete at the tackle area
Like Scott Johnson, we’re going to keep banging on about it until it sticks. He has targeted a defensively sound, aggressive rucking game (based on quick ball, see #4) as Scotland’s base level; the bare minimum of an acceptable performance.
Sounds like perfect sense to us.