By Tadhg Peavoy
Italy made rugby pundits across the globe eat their words last weekend, with a display that shocked most onlookers, as they dispatched France 23-18 at Stadio Olimpico.
Les Bleus turned up in Rome expecting to win, and failed to give the Azzurri the credit they deserve. That attitude of arrogance, which was present in the France side from kick-off in the Italian capital, allowed Italy to take the game to their much more fancied opponents, and outperform them at scrum time and also in the lineout.
But serious performances at set-piece time by Italian teams is common; it was a very good back line performance that made the difference.
Luciano Orquera – in a Man of the Match performance – led the backline with superb vision and astute passing. He made the line break which led to Sergio Parrisse’s opening try and also provided the break and assist which led to Martin Castrogiovanni’s second half try. It was a bravura performance from the Argentine-born No 10.
And from him the rest of the backline followed suit. Luke McLean had a classy game on the wing, also delivering one of his best performances for Italy. While on the other wing, Giovanbattista Venditti performed above and beyond anything he has every delivered for Italy in the past.
In the pack, there were star performers all over the place, with Parisse, Castrogiovanni and Alessandro Zanni the magic three that led the way.
Scotland, by contrast, were crushed by England last week at Twickenham. Nobody expected them to do much in London, and despite a solid performance in the first half, they gave creedance to that prediction in the second forty minutes at Twickers.
There were bright moments for Scotland; however, and they were far from awful. They had plenty of big performers, including Sean Maitland on the wing, Stuart Hogg at fullback and Richie Gray in the second row.
England were too powerful at ruck time and much more clinical in retention. All of this led to Scotland simply being unable to quell the tide and conceding penalties in danger areas. The Scots will have a much better chance at equalling Italy at the breakdown – although it will also be a severe battle.
Ironically, Scotland’s best chance of winning on Saturday is to emulate the English game. They need to maintain a solid base at scrum and lineout, at least gaining parity in those two areas. With that platform they showed against the Red Rose that they have the quality to do damage out wide against lesser teams.
The problem for Scotland is that Italy come into this game buoyed by victory over France. Nobody expected them to secure that win, and nobody expected the Azzurri backline to be excellent.
All thoughts on Italy are now revised. That magic performance in Rome was either a once-off, or something more tangible in terms of a step up in standard in the Six Nations.
Facing Scotland next is ideal for them and they will relish taking on their fiercest rivals.
Orquera will be looking to take the ball on plenty at ten, using crash balls up the centre, with his back rowers and centres making space for the men out wide.
This worked against France ever so well, and Azzurri head coach Jacques Brunel will likely want to repeat similar tactics, while throwing in some moves that we didn’t see last week.
The Scots will come out looking to establish dominance early and shatter Italian confidence. I don’t think they’ll manage it and Italy will deliver a leaner breakdown performance to deliver another Six Nations upset in this fascinating match-up.
Verdict: Italy to win by two.
Scotland XV: Hogg, Maitland, Lamont, Scott, Visser, Jackson, Laidlaw, Beattie, Brown, Harley, Hamilton, Gray, Murray, Ford, Grant
Replacements: Hall or MacArthur, Low, Cross, Kellock, Denton, Pyrgos, Weir, Evans
Italy XV: Masi, Venditti, Benvenuti, Canale, McLean, Orquera, Botes, Lo Cicero Ghiraldini, Castrogiovanni, Geldenhuys, Minto, Zanni, Favaro, Parisse (capt)
Replacements: Giazzon, De Marchi, Cittadini, Pavanello, Derbyshire, Gori, Burton, Garcia.