Preview: Italy v Scotland

Date published: February 22 2014

Winless and under-fire Scotland head for Rome on Saturday with their backs to the wall while the Azzurri sharpen their knives.

Winless and under-fire Scotland head for Rome on Saturday with their backs to the wall while the Azzurri sharpen their knives.

It's been a tough campaign so far for the Scots, with more than a touch of the bizarre punctuating the brutal and the below par. Two games, zero tries, and six points do not make for pleasant reading, and that's before we get to the nitty-gritty of the set-piece, the error counts and the tackle statistics.

Scott Johnson's selections and tactics have arguably provided Scottish fans with their greatest source of Six Nations entertainment. The Australian and his coaching staff are keen to emphasise the “project” – the grand plan for Scotland's future. He wants to increase the national team's squad depth, and generate more competition for places ahead of next year's World Cup. The idea is laudable, the methodology is problematic. At best, Johnson's rotations are unfair to current form; at worst, they damage the side's chances of winning games, piling on the pressure.

This week, arguably the pick of Scotland's players in Rounds One and Two – Dave Denton – has been benched, and skipper Kelly Brown is still out in the cold.

Hooker Ross Ford needed a rest; he has real problems striking the ball and his throwing has been poor for months at Test level. He must take a hefty share of the set-piece blame, but the fault does not lie exclusively at his door.

Nevertheless, the criticism and added pressure cannot be doing his confidence any good; as a Scot, I was ashamed to hear a sizeable section of the Murrayfield crowd jeer him from the pitch against England.

The annual clash with Scotland is one the Italians always have their eyes on, all the more so when it is in Rome. The visitors have not won here since 2006, and given their fortunes thus far in 2014, many are justifiably touting the Azzurri as favourites.

The battle up front is certainly one Jacques Brunel and co will be targeting – the Scottish scrum has not exactly proved devastating this season, and the Italians traditionally excel in the tight.

“Man,” Scotland Scrum Coach and 69-times capped Italian prop Massimo Cuttitta told me last week, “if we don't match Italy up front, we'll lose.”

To that end, watching Alessandro Zanni, Roberto Barbieri and – one of the world's best, and the heartbeat of his side – Sergio Parisse go head-to-head with Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro and Johnnie Beattie at the breakdown will be engrossing and fascinating.

There's also the curious case of Tomasso “Tommy” Allan, the former Scotland U20 fly-half who turns out for the hosts on Saturday after pledging his allegiance to Italy. His duel with baby-faced Duncan Weir is vital – neither has set the heather alight yet in this Championship either with ball in hand or with the boot, and whichever can put his pack in the right areas and kickstart his backline is likely to end up on the winning side.

Players to Watch:

For Italy: It has to be bright spark Michele Campagnaro, the surprise package of this year's tournament. Fleet of foot and sharp of mind, the 20-year-old midfielder has the touch of class to make the difference in what is set to prove a tight affair. The apparently superhuman Sergio Parisse is always worth watching too – often, simply to see what he'll pull off next.

For Scotland: We should definitely keep an eye on Scott Lawson, upon whose squat but experienced shoulders much rests after the performances of Ford. The Newcastle Falcon is better equipped to strike in the scrum, and is a more accomplished thrower than the Borderer, but the Scots do sacrifice a measure of power and go-forward without the Kelso man. Elsewhere, the return of Richie Gray to the starting lineup will be interesting; the lofty Glasgwegian has a point to prove after sporadic inclusions in Johnson's matchday squads.

Head to Head: This one will be decided up front and at the breakdown. The set-piece tussle is one the Italians will feel confident about, but the real battle comes when Chris Fusaro takes on Alessandro Zanni and co on the deck. The Fifer has been thrown in at the deep end by Johnson, and with neither Wilson nor Beattie especially adept at the scavenging duties, he simply must have a big game.

Recent results:

2013: Scotland won 30-29 in Pretoria
2013: Scotland won 34-10 at Murrayfield
2012: Italy won 13-6 in Rome
2011: Scotland won 23-12 at Murrayfield
2011: Scotland won 21-8 at Murrayfield
2010: Italy won 16-12 in Rome
2009: Scotland won 26-6 at Murrayfield
2008: Italy won 23-20 in Rome
2007: Scotland won 18-16 in Saint-Étienne
2007:Italy won 37-17 at Murrayfield

Prediction: These games are rarely pretty, and often lack quality. Italy are on the rise, while Scotland are dangerously close to hitting rock bottom, and don't have a strong record in Rome to fall back on. If the hosts get some go-forward, get a rise from the crowd, and get some points on the board, it could be another long day for Johnson's men. But – and I know I'll take some stick for this – I don't think that will happen. The Scots have been stung by a storm of media criticism and are desperate to get their tournament back on track. I'm backing them to take a tight clash by less than five points.

The teams:

Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Alberto De Marchi.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Paul Derbyshire, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Tommaso Iannone.

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Moray Low, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Ryan Grant
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Al Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Dave Denton, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Max Evans

Date: Saturday 22nd February
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 1430 local, 1330 GMT
Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)
Assistant referees: Jerome Garces (Fra), Luke Pearce (Eng)
TMO: Geoff Warren (Eng)

By Jamie Lyall