Round One of the Six Nations climaxed in Rome last Sunday as Italy beat France. This week they look to win again, at Murrayfield.
An outstanding first round of the Six Nations climaxed in Rome last Sunday as Italy stunned France. This week they look to win again, at Murrayfield.
Long associated with the Wooden Spoon decider, this year sees an unusual situation whereby the Azzurri are hunting back-to-back victories.
Put simply, Italy were superb against France last weekend and looked capable of standing toe-to-toe with any of the northern hemisphere outfits in 2013. Of course the big question now is can they repeat that 80-minute Rome performance on the road and not fall back into their stifling tactics?
So what made the difference? Noticeable was the conditioning of this Italian outfit. They were as fit and strong as we have seen them since their Six Nations inception in 2000 as France – while themselves stoic in defence – met an opponent on top of its game both with and without the ball.
Other apparent factors surely had to be a fit and fresh Martin Castrogiovanni, who has not played as much as he would have liked at Leicester Tigers in 2012/13 due to Dan Cole's presence. He was outstanding, so too number eight Sergio Parisse and a midfield combination that coach Jacques Brunel would do well to look after. Tommaso Benvenuti has for a long time been considered something of a golden child in the country and is coming of age this year (the score against Toulouse one of his highlights thus far) while Alberto Sgarbi is an ideal 12 who has power and a good skill set. His absence due to an ankle injury is a setback.
In truth it couldn't have been a more special weekend for the Azzurri as nearly 400 former players were awarded official caps in a ceremony at Olympic Stadium before standing pitch-side to sing the national anthem. If seeing the likes of Diego Dominguez and 61-year-old Luciano Modonesi belting out the “Fratelli D'Italia” (Brothers of Italy) didn't light a fire in the belly then nothing would have for a squad that gave their supporters reason to cheer.
Should they back up last year's 13-6 win – making it two from two in 2013 – Italy would then host Wales probably in second spot. You see where I am going. But even if their next two games don't produce wins, the Six Nations seems to have a new Italy in its midst.
Let us confirm that Scotland are favourite for this fixture and have had an extra day's rest following their painful lesson at HQ. Desperation and a yearning to turn things around will be the driving force this weekend, but it's fair to say they look like a side lacking confidence.
Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan will no doubt have been sifting through the wreckage of that loss, and of course hope to have laid foundations for a response ahead of a run of three home matches that see them face Ireland and Wales after next week's scheduled break.
As always, Kelly Brown got through a heap of work, just like he has for Saracens all season while Stuart Hogg showed touches of class at fifteen. But with a pack that was going backwards for large chunks of the game, it was always going to be difficult for Scotland to threaten. Yet it was worrying for Scottish fans that their usually bullish lock combination of Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton came off second best to Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury.
Rob Harley is the most notable inclusion in the side for Saturday as injury rules out Alasdair Strockosh. The Glasgow youngster goes up against one of the unsung heroes of this Italian side, Alessandro Zanni, ahead of what will be a fascinating 80 minutes at Murrayfield where so many questions are set to be answered. The big one surely has to be whether Italy can replicate that Rome performance and create a scenario that surely no one had predicted.
Ones to watch:
For Scotland: In one of two changes made to the Scottish side, flanker Rob Harley is called in to replace the injured Alasdair Strokosch. Harley, who scored the match-winner against Samoa on debut when he was introduced off the bench last June, has been pushing hard for selection and aged just 22 the Crewe-born Glasgow man could cement a long-term spot in the side with a strong performance against what is a superb Italian back-row.
For Italy: Judging from our recent poll, Planet Rugby readers believe Sergio Parisse to be the best number eight currently playing in the world. We would go along with that and cannot recall him ever having a bad day at the office for his country. Ably backed up by in-form flank Alessandro Zanni, Parisse leads and his team-mates follow. Scotland must find a way to negate his impact otherwise the 29-year-old will be marching to successive triumphs.
Head-to-head: There were some calls for Max Evans' inclusion in the centres this weekend but Johnson has stuck with Sean Lamont and Matt Scott in midfield. The former's battle with Tommaso Benvenuti is an intriguing one as it opposes the directness of the Scot against the silky running of the Italian. On form Benvenuti has the edge but with a new partner in now Pro D2 player Gonzalo Canale alongside, the midfield becomes a highly critical area.
2012: Italy won 13-6 in Rome
2011: Scotland won 23-12 in Edinburgh
2011: Scotland won 21-8 in Edinburgh
2010: Italy won 16-12 in Rome
2009: Scotland won 26-6 in Edinburgh
2008: Italy won 23-20 in Rome
2007: Scotland won 18-16 in St Etienne (World Cup pool match)
2007: Italy won 37-17 in Edinburgh
2006: Scotland won 13-10 in Rome
2005: Scotland won 18-10 in Edinburgh
2004: Italy won 20-14 in Rome
Prediction: I would have to go along with our recent poll. Italy by 3!
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown (capt), 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Moray Low, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Alastair Kellock, 20 David Denton, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Max Evans.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovambattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Gonzalo Canale, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Francesco Minto, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Paul Derbyshire, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Kristopher Burton, 23 Gonzalo Garcia.
Date: Saturday, February 9
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
Television match official: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)