By Tadhg Peavoy
Italy v Scotland, Stadio Olimpico, Saturday 1.30pm
Italy versus Scotland is one for the real rugby enthusiasts.
Between them, the two sides have accumulated 12 of the 14 Six Nations Wooden Spoons that have been dished out since 2000, and the game has taken on something of a reputation of a war of attrition slugfest.
But the traditional basement-battle nature of the tie makes it appealing in a manner of its own, as often the winner of the tie will get that crucial two points to help them avoid taking home the championship’s booby prize. For that very reason it becomes compulsive viewing.
Since 2000, Scotland have had the edge, with 12 victories to Italy’s six; they have also won the last two clashes, which both took place in 2013.
But the Scots have been abysmal coming into this match. Their insipid, dull and dour and display in Dublin set off the alarm bells that this could be a very long championship for the northern Celts.
And then their woeful, creativity-absent, 20-0 drubbing to England at Murrayfield added more fuel to that particular fire.
Scotland could not have been worse against their oldest enemies, and lacked incision or guile in any area of the game; the only surprise was that England didn’t win by more.
The statistics tell much of Scotland’s story: five of 12 line-outs lost; only three line-breaks in 80 minutes; 16 penalties conceded; one maul won compared to England’s ten; zero balls won in England’s 22; 27 missed tackles; and 56 errors. It was a horror show.
Everything needs to be better from the Scots against Italy in Rome.
Italy, on the other hand, have been unlucky so far in the championship. Against Wales in their opener, they were in the tie for 80 minutes and ultimately their indiscipline, and penalties conceded, cost them a potential victory.
Against France a fortnight ago, Les Bleus blitzed Italy with a salvo of tries just after half-time, and the Azzuri never recovered. But for most of the match they went toe-to-toe with France. They are the form side coming into this clash.
Italy coach Jacques Brunel has brought in Robert Barbieri and Alessandro Zanni in the pack; both players will add weight, and aggression to the Azzurri eight, and their inclusion will boost the team.
Out back, Angelo Esposito is in at 14, as Brunel looks to find a quality finisher on the wings, which Italy badly need.
Scotland have brought Richie Gray into the fold in the second row. Frankly, not having him in the starting team prior to this weekend was a ludicrous decision and brought into question the credentials of interim coach Scott Johnson as the team’s main selector.
Gray’s return to the first XV is a massive boost to the team, where his leadership, set-piece and ball carrying skills will be felt across the pitch.
In addition, Scott Lawson comes in at hooker for Ross Ford, while Johnnie Beattie is preferred to David Denton at No 8.
The decision to drop Denton is another head scratcher. He was the only Scottish player who did anything of merit with ball-in-hand against England, and to see him left out of the starting team again draws major questions about Johnson’s selection abilities.
Team selection will mean nothing if Scotland don’t do everything better this weekend. And that is the question mark over this team at the moment – can they lift their game?
On the basis of the first two weeks it would appear they have little cohesion and not much of a game plan, and are merely drifting through the remainder of Johnson’s interim period in charge, until incoming head coach Vern Cotter takes over the reins.
Italy have shown they can do damage. Michele Campagnaro at 13 looks a very decent find for the Italians, and this was demonstrated by his two tries against Wales. And at No 10, Tommaso Allen is potentially an out-half that can develop into a real leader.
At present he is still very rough around the edges; in addition Italy lack an out-and-out goal kicker who can punish sides.
These latter problems with the Italy team are big ones, and for those reasons mostly, I feel there will be little between the teams in Rome.
That said, the home side should get enough of an edge in the pack, and with that platform, get past this Scotland challenge.
Verdict: Italy by eight.
13:00 on Saturday 22 February (Italy v Scotland and England v Ireland) on RTÉ Two and RTE.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage of England v Ireland on Saturday Sport (14:00) on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).