Two teams with goose eggs in the win column square off at Murrayfield with the Wooden Spoon all but gift wrapped for whoever comes up short once again. While this fixture has become the default decider of the table basement, this time it feels a little unusual after the abnormally optimistic prognostications for Scotland’s chances heading into the tournament. Their opening two losses don’t exactly feel unjust, but there remains a feeling of underachievement, that Vern Cotter expected to be entering this match with at least one Six Nations victory under his belt.
That said the Scots enter the match as clear favorites, based on two relatively positive performances that could have gone their way with a little more composure and accuracy at key moments. Italy, on the other hand, have been overwhelmed in both matches, offering little offensively aside from some strong running from centre Luca Morisi. With his running mate Michele Campagnaro and star flanker Alessandro Zanni already out of the tournament, the Azzurri have now lost Andrea Masi and Leonardo Sarto, at least for this match, and their attack is dimmed just a little bit more.
Those aren’t the only losses, with Martín Castrogiovanni ruled out via dog bite to the nose – no, that is not a joke – and Marco Bortolami sidelined with a strained adductor. Take away Mauro Bergamasco, dropped in favour of Simone Favaro, and all of a sudden Sergio Parisse is the only centurion left of four. Bergamasco’s international future is once again in question, as long as Favaro can stay fit enough to hold on to the jersey.The good news is that all of the replacements are arguably better players, at least on form. Joshua Furno steps in for Bortolami, with Marco Fuser the reserve lock, and Lorenzo Cittadini has been called up for Castrogiovanni, albeit on the bench to start. Dario Chistolini gets his first Six Nations start at tighthead, and Matías Agüero starts again at loosehead, switching jerseys with bench Alberto de Marchi.
The forwards are competent, but the backs have a very rag-tag look about them. Jacques Brunel remains convinced that Kelly Haimona is the answer at flyhalf. One would have thought that Masi’s injury would open the door for Tommaso Allan to play 10 with Haimona at 12. Instead it is uncapped Enrico Bacchin, a stocky lad from Benetton Treviso, who leap-frogs Allan, Giulio Bisegni, and Tommaso Boni straight into a starting jersey. Bacchin’s committed front-on tackling is more a like-for-like replacement for Masi, but his offensive skills are limited. No-one has ever accused Brunel of being a visionary.
Sarto’s hamstring problem has to be a worry for the remainder of the tournament, Italy do not have dynamic attackers with his size and pace on call. Michele Visentin is given the job this week, another debutant, and it’s not entirely clear why he’s preferred to Angelo Esposito, a younger player who Brunel has already invested considerable time. Visentin has shown some pace and abrasiveness with the national u20s but with only a handful of appearances for Zebre thus far it’s hard to guage what kind of impact he might have.
Scotland also have some injury worries, most notably in the second row where both Richie Gray and his obvious replacement Jim Hamilton are out, with Tim Swinson wearing the no4 jersey and winning his 10th cap. Swinson is obviously nowhere near the same presence in the lineout, but he does relish the rough and tumble and if anything might in fact strengthen the fringe defense. Reserve props Gordon Reid and Jon Welsh will both miss the remainder of the tournament with knee and hand injures respectively, though this is tempered with the return of Euan Murray and a recall for Ryan Grant, cleared of wrongdoing in an unsavoury off-field incident involving suspended Glasgow back row Ryan Wilson.
An on-field happening has cost Finn Russell his spot, with a two week sentence handed out for his clumsy backwards toppling of Dan Biggar a fortnight ago. With both Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson already long-term casualities, Coach Cotter has turned to Peter Horne to fill the gap at flyhalf. A skilled footballer with a useful left boot, the Glasgow man is perhaps optimally used at no12, but has split his time with Warriors between first and second receiver this season. His ability to offer a running threat and familiarity with clubmates Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett gave him the nod over Greig Tonks, who remains on the bench.
The last change sees Tommy Seymour returned to the wing after recovering from a hip knock, and interestingly it is Tim Visser who makes way, still somewhat out of form, with Sean Lamont instead retained and swapped over to the left. Highly promising Australian-born second row Ben Toolis, the slightly bigger and certainly better of the twin towers, is set to make his debut from the bench, where he is joined by another uncapped Edinburgh tyro, Hamish Watson. The former Leicester academy openside takes the place of injured Alasdair Strokosch.
There’s not much to opine about when considering possible outcomes for this match – Scotland will win. There’s simply no reason to pick their guests. Italy might have a slight edge at the lineout, and they will slow things down as best they can, but in every other facet of play the Scots hold the advantage. They’ve come close to taking much bigger scalps in their last two outings and have had two weeks to work out the kinks, even without regular playmaker Russell. Look for them to win convincingly. Not a blowout, but out of reach heading into the final quarter. Take Scotland by 12.
SCOTLAND vs ITALY
Saturday, February 28, 14:30 GMT, Edinburgh
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)
Assistants: Romain Poite (FRU) & Leighton Hodges (WRU)
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)