Scotland v Italy, Six Nations Championship, February 28
Scotland and Italy set for vital tie
February 26, 2009
Thom Evans could provide the pace and invention for Scotland to down Italy © Getty Images
When Italy demolished Scotland 37-17 at Murrayfield in 2007 many people saw the result as a changing of the guard. Italy had their greatest Six Nations victory and Scotland had slipped behind them in the pecking order, devoid of pace, ideas and confidence.
The 2007 Rugby World Cup did something to redress the balance, with Italy crashing out at the hands of Scotland in a dour tie as the Scots made the quarter-finals. In last season's Six Nations the pendulum swung again, Italian fly-half Andrea Marcato slotting a late drop-goal to expunge the confidence given to the Scots by their Calcutta Cup victory over England the week before.
Saturday's meeting at Murrayfield is massively important for both sides. With Italy's promise of two seasons ago a distant memory and Scotland's optimism ahead of the tournament a false dawn, all eyes are on the loser and their likely acceptance of the dreaded wooden spoon.
Both sides have talent sprinkled throughout their ranks and with prop Euan Murray returning and Ali Kellock slotting in to the second-row Scotland will be more optimistic of facing down the Italian eight.
Italy know that their strengths lie in a pack of gnarled campaigners, with the likes of Castrogiovanni, Perugini and Bergamasco complemented by the brilliance of Sergio Parisse at the base of the scrum. Scotland, lightweight against Wales and France, will need to blunt the Italians' power and allow their backs a little space in which to work.
Scoring tries has appeared an insurmountable problem at times for Scotland, but they must have faith that their strike runners such as Thom and Max Evans can break an Italy defence that has shipped 74 points in their opening two Six Nations games. Halfbacks Phil Godman and Mike Blair have a responsibility to keep the ball alive and avoid becoming embroiled in an extended bout of arm-wrestling with the Italian pack. Scotland have home advantage and will not want the game to be close going into the final 10 minutes.
Italy showed in patches against Ireland their capacity to frustrate an attack, and it's unlikely that they will present late tries so readily this week given the fiery response to their capitulation from coach Nick Mallett. Scotland's own self-belief will be tested should they find themselves in a dogfight with minutes remaining but they will take heart from their late showings against Wales and France.
Italy will look to keep things tight, and with Andrea Marcato providing an extra kicking option from fullback they will likely look to tie the Scottish forwards up in the set-piece. Alasdair Strokosch and John Barclay will need to be at their best in order to combat the Italian back-row, who would not be underestimated for their grit by any side in the world game.
With both sides currently low on confidence and knowing that another win in the tournament is unlikely to be forthcoming, there will be a great deal of pressure on the shoulders of skippers Blair and Parisse. Two of the finest players in Europe will be going all out to build some belief amongst their charges, at a time when excuses or strange selections won't matter to the fans packed inside Murrayfield.
For Scotland the equation is simple, win or bust. Coach Frank Hadden maintains that his side are improving but following an impotent display against Wales and a slightly unfortunate showing against a below-par France there is some questioning where this progress is occurring.
The flair that Glasgow exhibited in defeating Toulouse in the Heineken Cup has not translated to the Scotland side, but should they attack the Italians at pace then gaps will appear. The Evans brothers, Simon Danielli and fullback Hugo Southwell can cause trouble for Italy should they receive a platform.
The Scotland forwards need to secure a decent amount of possession and Blair and Godman need to play with their heads up, engaging the pace outside them and playing with the confidence to take on the Italian defence.
Italy will scrap for all that they are worth but their limitations behind the scrum should be a bullseye for the Scots, just as long at they back themselves.
Scotland: Hugo Southwell (Edinburgh); Simon Danielli (Ulster), Max Evans (Glasgow Warriors), Graeme Morrison (Glasgow Warriors), Thom Evans (Glasgow Warriors); Phil Godman (Edinburgh), Mike Blair (Edinburgh, capt); Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), Euan Murray (Northampton Saints), Jason White (Sale Sharks), Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors), Alasdair Strokosch (Gloucester), Simon Taylor (Stade Francais), John Barclay (Glasgow Warriors)
Replacements: Dougie Hall (Glasgow Warriors), Alasdair Dickinson (Gloucester), Kelly Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Scott Gray (Northampton Saints), Chris Cusiter (Perpignan), Chris Paterson (Edinburgh), Nick De Luca (Edinburgh)
Italy: Andrea Marcato (Benetton Treviso); Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais), Gonzalo Canale (Clermont-Auvergne), Gonzalo Garcia (Calvisano), Matteo Pratichetti (Calvisano); Luke McLean (Calvisano) Paul Griffen (Calvisano); Salvatore Perugini (Stade Toulousain), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Calvisano), Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester Tigers), Santiago Dellape (Toulon), Marco Bortolami (Gloucester), Alessandro Zanni (Calvisano), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais)
Replacements: Fabio Ongaro (Saracens), Carlos Nieto (Gloucester), Carlo Antonio Del Fava (Ulster), Pablo Canavosio (Viadana), Josh Sole (Viadana), Andrea Bacchetti (Rovigo), Giulio Rubini (Cariparma)
In the latest edition of Ask John, John Griffiths answers queries about Barbarians socks, bi-lingual referees and Lions who weren't Lions
"Here is the line-up I believe will take to the field on Saturday, let the abuse commence." Tom Hamilton has a punt at the Lions' starting XV for the first Test in his latest Tour Diary
"Drafting former Lions heroes and rising stars into your side at short notice may make for great copy but it does not make for a great side." Graham Jenkins on the lesson from the Lions' first loss