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Scotland v Italy: Summer Nations Series 2023, Match Preview pt I

Rory Darge - pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports
Rory Darge will captain Scotland - pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports

KO 3.15 at Scottish Gas Murrayfield
Saturday 29th July 2023
Live on Amazon Prime

For the first time in Scotland’s 152-year, 735-test history they will face the same opponents at the same venue in consecutive games at home. This will be the third time that Scotland have face Italy in back to back fixtures. 2015’s Rugby World Cup warm-up matches in Torino and Edinburgh as well as 2017’s Six Nations match at Murrayfield and Summer Tour clash in Singapore all ended in wins for the Scots.

This will be the 20th occasion Scotland have played a full Test match as a World Cup warm-up fixture.

Scotland’s opponents in World Cup warm-up matches:

  • Ireland (4) – W2, L2
  • Italy (4) – W4
  • France (3) – W1, L2
  • Romania (3) – W2, L1
  • Georgia (2) – W2
  • Argentina (1) – L1
  • South Africa (1) – L1
  • Wales (1) – L1
  • OVERALL (19) – W11, L8

Italy Scouting Report

Pass Marks

Until the 2023 Six Nations, Scotland hadn’t faced a team that put in more than 200 passes in a Test match during the Townsend era – then it happened twice. England made 206 passes while dominating possession (57%) and territory (71%) at Twickenham. Italy then made 208 at Murrayfield while only having 47% of possession and 47% territory.

This is the Italian way now. 200 passes v France; 198 v England; 186 v Ireland; 182 v Wales. They had comfortably the highest tally across the Six Nations – 55% more than the jouer, jouer French! Italy’s attacking systems are predicated on moving the ball wide. For a Scotland team that normally defends very narrow that’s a risk, although it’s likely Steve Tandy’s system will be tweaked to meet the threat of the Azzurri.

Outside centre, Juan Ignacio Brex is a key cog in Italy’s passing masterclass. Against Scotland, the Benetton player made 22 passes (and 11 carries) while his colleague at inside centre, Luca Morisi, passed just 5 times while making 13 carries. If the ball goes to 12 it’s likely being crashed up. If it’s a miss pass to 13, it’s more than likely going even wider. There will be some testing decisions to be made for Scotland’s brand new centre pairing of Stafford McDowall and Chris Harris.

Up Front Battle

While Italy’s desire to get wide was illustrated by their volume of passes, they know they still have to put in the grunt work in the forwards to earn the opportunities and space. The Scottish pack, for the most part, did a good job of containing their opposition, missing just 6 tackles in the Six Nations’ fixture, with only 3 of those being conceded to Italy’s forwards.

There were several phases of play in the game though where the Azzurri may not have been breaking tackles but they consistently got over the gain line, recycling quick ball after quick ball. The home side were only able to turn over 3 of their visitors’ rucks and struggled to slow possession at crucial times which allowed Italy to maintain the pressure right to the very final minute of the match.

Scotland’s pack for Saturday pack will be 36kgs lighter than the iteration that played in March. They will potentially need to play more aggressively at the line to stop the Italians getting on the front foot as well as to create opportunities for the scavenging back row to turn over ball and stop the visitors completely in their tracks.

Miscellany
  • Italy conceded more scrum penalties than any other side in the Six Nations, including 4 against Scotland.
  • The Azzurri only lost the penalty count once (against England) during the tournament so their discipline elsewhere was pretty good.
  • Tackle completion below 85% is indicative of how much pressure the Italian defence was under against their Six Nations’ rivals. Scotland’s back 3 of Ollie Smith, Kyle Steyn and Duhan van der Merwe combined for 15 broken tackles at Murrayfield last time out so many of the opportunities are likely to come in the wide channels.

Previous results

This will be the 18th time the two sides have met at Murrayfield. The head-to-head looks like this from Scotland’s perspective:

W W W W W W L W W W W L W W W W W

Most recent meeting at Murrayfield:

Scotland 26 – 14 Italy

Significant stat
3 tries for Blair Kinghorn – the 7th hat-trick scored for Scotland in the last 5 years (55 matches). That’s the same number of hat-tricks as had been scored in the previous 29 years of Test history for the dark blues.

Officials

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant 1: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant 2: Adam Leal (England)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)

Until the latter stages of the Six Nations, Scotland had managed a run of 10 games without losing the penalty count. That was halted by first Ireland (10-6 against the Scots) and then Italy (15-10 against the Scots).

The Azzurri did have a player yellow carded after persistent struggles in the scrum but overall it was the home side whose indiscipline nearly ended up costing them the game. Given they have only once in the last 8 years conceded more penalties than they did during that previous meeting with Italy, the coaching staff will be expecting a much tidier performance in this area as the build up to the World Cup really starts to kick into gear.

Scotland’s previous games with Mr O’Keeffe in charge:

  • 2016 – beat Japan (A)
    Penalties: 27 (For 16 – 11 Against)
    Cards: Japan 2 YCs
  • 2016 – beat Argentina (H)
    Penalties: 20 (For 11 – 9 Against)
    Cards: none
  • 2019 – lost to Japan (A)
    Penalties: 11 (For 7 – 4 Against)
    Cards: none
  • 2020 – beat Italy (A)
    Penalties: 18 (For 8 – 10 Against)
    Cards: Italy 1 YC
  • 2022 – beat England (H)
    Penalties: 18 (For 10 – 13 Against)
    Cards: England 1 YC
  • 2022 – lost to Argentina (A)
    Penalties: 19 (For 11 – 8 Against)
    Cards: none

Part II of the preview, including the head to heads, will follow later in the week.

Scotland: Ollie Smith, Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Stafford McDowall, Kyle Steyn, Ben Healy, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, George Turner, Murphy Walker, Sam Skinner, Scott Cummings, Luke Crosbie, Rory Darge (c), Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: Stuart McInally, Jamie Bhatti, Javan Sebastian, Cameron Henderson, Josh Bayliss, Jamie Dobie, Blair Kinghorn, Cameron Redpath.

11 Responses

  1. As expected, a B team to face Italy – playing for places in the squad. Wouldn’t expect many to make the starting XV v SA (with the possible exceptions of Graham and Fagerson).
    Interesting with Darge as captain. Gives both Ritchie and Watson competition, should either or both perform below par.
    Really hope Sutherland performs up to his highest, as he hasn’t since the Lions.

    1. I think Darge could start ahead of Watson if he shows form after his long injury lay off. Think he’s more dynamic player and was absolutely flying when he got injured. Watson is a pedigree player but post-Lions form has been a little up and down.

      Really intrigued to see Healy but a shame he has such a makeshift centre partnership outside him. I hope Redpath comes on and we see McDowell move outside. Also really want to see what Henderson can do but he’s got some job to force his way into the squad. Hoping Crosbie has a stormer but can’t see him supplanting anyone, he’ll just have to hope Townsend takes Russell, Healy and Kinghorn as back up and leaves space for a 6th backrow.

      1. Interesting that Toonie went Fagerson / Ritchie / Dempsey against Ireland in the 6N, when Mish was available. I actually thought it was a selection that worked well in a weird game. Given we’ve got two teams that have outmatched us physically in our group, I could see that being our first choice in France.

        Agree on Darge though, he’s a super-talent and hopefully he can show the form to be part of the conversation.

      2. Crosbie was playing very well in the 6N until he got injured. The impression I got was that Toonie would have kept picking him if available.

  2. Yeah should be a very competitive fixture and could go either way. Not sure what the Italy team looks like?
    I think Townsend would love to take Walker over Sebastian but he needs something to hang is hat on, a performance to point to and say that justifies his selection. Iain Morrisons article in the times made interesting reading. I think it’s about the first time I agreed with everything he said. Particularly regarding Crosbie. That Crosbie Darge combo could be excellent!

    1. In my previous ramblings I said that Dempsey Darge Crosbie is my preferred back row. Harsh on others (inc the captain……but)
      I reckon Crosbie will not be selected in the travelling squad, which is a real shame given his attributes.
      Interesting team selection, kick for position then rolling mail??

  3. Great preview as always team !

    Now the new season is upon us could the blog update the upcoming fixtures for men and womans teams ? Its still showing the 6N results.

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