Preview: Italy v Scotland

Date published: August 21 2015

Italy will kick off their pre-World Cup campaign with the first of two warm-up games against Scotland in Turin on Saturday.

Just how much can be read into these preparatory Tests is a matter of debate, but the results certainly count since taking momentum and a positive squad atmosphere into the World Cup is priceless.

With so many changes to Scotland's team and this being Italy's first hit out since March, it's fair to say that next week's return fixture in Edinburgh is likely to bear more clues as to the make up of their respective first-choice teams for the global showpiece.

Scotland will be looking to develop their game against the Azzurri over the next fortnight before completing their build-up with a clash against France in Paris, a fixture which comes six days after the deadline for World Cup squad announcements.

Despite their defeat to Ireland last week, Vern Cotter's side will be able to take many positives from the 22-28 loss in Dublin, in which they pushed their hosts right down to the wire with a below-strength side.

The fact that they could compete with the Irish while fielding a team containing many fringe players suggests not only that they have moved on from a disastrous Six Nations campaign, but that they do have some strength in depth.

However, defensive lapses saw the Scots ship four tries at the Aviva Stadium, which is not a good sign for a team that has been in camp together for a number of weeks.

Defence coach Matt Taylor has also pointed to the need to use the games against Italy as an opportunity to work on the set-piece issues which hindered their progress in Dublin.

The breakdown area, once one of Scotland's strengths, also needs some work and an all-new back-row featuring New Zealand import John Hardie will be keenly watched.

"The Irish game was an open, fairly fluid affair for the most part but I think the Italy game will be a tighter battle so we'll be looking, perhaps, to play a bit differently," said Cotter.

Scotland's last outing against Italy was the last-minute loss at Murrayfield during the Six Nations, when a penalty try sealed the win for the visitors.

On home soil, the Azzurri will be hoping for a similar result although their much-changed side also has an experimental feel to it.

Coach Jacques Brunel caused a minor surprise in the centres, with Tommaso Benvenuti handed his first start in two years while Zebre's Guglielmo Palazzani comes in at scrum-half to replace suspended Edoardo Gori.

Brunel knows what he can expected from his veteran stalwarts so hooker Davide Giazzon, who will make his third start for Italy, is given a chance impress in an unprecedented front-row trio alongside Lorenzo Cittadini and Matias Aguero.

The last three games between these teams have been decided by a total of five points, so this weekend is set to see another close battle.

Team news: With habitual captain Sergio Parisse sidelined with 'flu-like symptoms, lock Quintin Geldenhuys will skipper the hosts. Geldenhuys will be partnered in the second-row by Zebre team-mate Valerio Bernabo, who will be making his first Azzurri start in nearly two years. Veterans Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco – who have 398 caps between them – all start on the bench, as will versatile full-back Luke McLean.

Uncapped trio John Hardie (back-row), Rory Hughes (wing) and Stuart McInally (hooker) will start for Scotland. Head coach Vern Cotter has made a total of 11 changes to his starting line-up, seven of those in the forwards. Grant Gilchrist was earlier in the week named as captain. Uncapped Edinburgh pair WP Nel and Damien Hoyland are named on the bench.

Players to watch:

For Italy: Former Scotland U21 pivot Tommaso Allan is given a chance to stake his claim on the Azzurri number ten jersey in the absence of Kelly Haimona, who has been ruled out if the World Cup with a broken arm. Fly-half has long been a troublesome position for Italy but the 22-year-old Perpignan playmaker now has the opportunity to make a long-term impression. Meanwhile, new Saracens loose forward Samuela Vunisa has a big act to follow as he fills in for absent talisman Parisse.

For Scotland: Edinburgh hooker Stuart McInally's first cap will be extra special after having come so close to it before. He was an unused replacement flanker in 2012 against South Africa before his positional switch to hooker in 2013. He was scheduled to feature against Ireland last week, but a stomach bug meant he watched the game from his sick bed. A game against Italy will test the mettle of any hooker. Meanwhile, a lot of ink has flowed over the inclusion of John Hardie in the squad, and the New Zealander will be hoping for a big performance to justify his selection. Hardie has taken the leap to head north without a club contract, so he needs to impress if he hopes to have a future in Scotland.

Head-to-head: With a lot of changes in both packs, the set-pieces should offer valuable insights for both coaches, especially Cotter. Giazzon does not have a lot of experience while South African Nel will join McInally in making his Test debut when he comes off the bench.

Previous results:
2015: Italy won 22-19 at Murrayfield
2014: Scotland won 21-20 in Rome
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

Prediction: Tough one to call considering the experimental nature of both sides and the string of close results between these teams in recent years. Home field advantage just might be enough for Italy to edge it by 3.

The teams:

Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Samuela Vunisa, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Valerio Bernabó, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys (c), 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Davide Giazzon, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Mauro Bergamasco, 21 Marcello Violi, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Luke McLean.

Scotland: 15 Greig Tonks, 14 Sean Lamont, 13 Richie Vernon, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Rory Hughes, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 8 Adam Ashe, 7 John Hardie, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Grant Gilchrist (c), 4 Richie Gray, 3 Mike Cusack, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Gordon Reid.
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Willem Nel, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Henry Prygos, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Damien Hoyland.

Date: Saturday, August 15
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Turin
Kick-off: 20:00 local (19:00 BST, 18:00 GMT)
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)