Scotland v Italy, 6 Nations 2017: Match preview part 1 – Scouting Report

KO 12.30 at Murrayfield Stadium, Saturday 18th March
Live on BBC 1

Italy Scouting Report

Difficulties in defence

The Italians have missed 140 tackles in the Six Nations so far – including 55 against France last weekend where they managed to complete just 69% of all the tackles they attempted. In particular their backs have struggled without the ball:

  • Padovani 6 tackles made / 8 missed;
  • Esposito 16/10;
  • McLean 18/8 (last 2 matches);
  • Canna 10/4 (v France);
  • Gori 21/12.

Conor O’Shea’s decision to go with just 2 backs (alongside 6 forwards) on the bench will compound any issues if his side are exposed out wide by Scotland – there will simply be very little he can do to change things or shift the momentum if the Scots are able to play that kind of game. The dark blues have to isolate the players mentioned above and get them one on one against the attacking talents of the likes of Hogg, Seymour and Jones to exploit what has the potential to be a significant advantage.

Last quarter meltdowns

Italy have conceded 12 tries in the final 20 minutes of their 4 games so far in the tournament (10 in the first hour of play) and scored just 1 themselves – Esposito’s late, late consolation try against France (they’ve scored 5 tries in the earlier stages of their matches). There appear to be a few factors at play; Italian fitness levels look to be marginally poorer than their opponents; use of the respective benches really exposes the lack of depth in their squad; and, crucially, once games start to stretch beyond them the energy and passion they are often able to sustain themselves with slowly ebbs away.

Scotland need to get out in front of the Italians early and control the game. Don’t allow the visitors to sense they are in with a chance as the match reaches its latter stages and the dark blues should be able to finish much stronger – and not find themselves in the quagmire like they did during the last 5 minutes of this same fixture back in 2015…

Setpiece struggles

The famed Italian strength in the forwards is not yet a thing of the past – but they aren’t able to dominate teams the way they used to with a powerful scrum and highly organised lineout. They still want to turn things into an arm wrestle at the setpiece but it hasn’t always benefited them. Although they have won a couple on their opponents’ put-in to the scrum they’ve also lost 4 of their own in the Championship. Loosehead Andrea Lovotti has creaked somewhat and has been penalised 7 times and yellow carded. Scotland may not quite be in the position to target the scrum themselves but they should be working hard to ensure the Italians cannot milk penalties every time the 2 sides pack down and any handling errors by the visitors are turned into quick attacking ball for the home backline.

The Italian lineout has toiled in recent matches and they have lost 9 on their own throw during the Six Nations. Possibly of even more interest to Jonny Gray and co. will be the stat that Italy are the only side in the competition that has failed to steal a single one of their opponent’s lineouts. Given that this is one of the most productive phases of play for Scotland to score off it suggests the dark blues can afford use their kicking game to push Italy deep and force them to clear their lines. If the Azzurri choose to avoid the touchline then there is just the small matter of Hogg, Seymour and Visser running back at them…

Outfoxing ‘The Fox’

The Italian tactic of not contesting rucks (apparently codenamed ‘La Volpe’ – ‘The Fox’ – by Brendan Venter) has provided both England and France with some interesting tests so far. The English experimented with pick and goes; quicker ball; and increasing their offloading game. If their first half execution hadn’t been so poor they may not have taken quite as long to pull away from Italy. The French had to contend with a more selective use of the tactic in Rome last week but the success of scrum half Baptiste Serin suggests a couple of useful points to consider.

When there is no ruck formed after a tackle the Italians are perfectly entitled to send players round past the ball, where they can block off passing lanes and generally make a nuisance of themselves. There are 2 things these individuals cannot do though – thanks to the interpretation of Law 15.6 (d) they cannot approach within 1 metre of the ball; and due to Law 15.6 (g) they cannot tackle the player who first takes possession of the ball after a tackle. Serin used this to his advantage on a couple of occasions, running at Edoardo Gori (the primary operator in the no ruck tactic) forcing him to give way and then exploiting gaps in the Italian defence.

All the Scottish  players, but in particular Ali Price / Henry Pyrgos, need to play with their heads up and be aware of exactly what shape the Italian defence is taking. Quick ball and moving the point of attack without allowing Italy to create breakdown situations, particularly through offloading out of the tackle, will also stress the visitor’s defence far more and stop them slowing the game down and containing the Scottish attack the way they would like to.

Miscellaneous Musings

Italy are one of the few sides to regularly try and create the open field maul – the tactic that ultimately did for Scotland back in 2015. The Scots either need to avoid engaging or ensure they immediately drop the Italian ball carrier to avoid losing ground and conceding penalties and/or tries.

Edoardo Padovani is a good broken field runner but he has turned the ball over 6 times, including dropping kicks under no pressure against Wales and England. Scotland should be targeting him for a challenging afternoon under the high ball with Tommy Seymour breathing down his neck.

Watch out for the human juggernaut that is Italian winger Giovanbattista Venditti. He is the one man that is normally happy that his side’s place kickers are so dreadful – having scored a try from a Kelly Haimona penalty that came back off the post against Scotland in 2015 he repeated the dose from a Tommaso Allan kick that cannoned off the woodwork and left English defenders looking foolish at Twickenham last month.

Italy have given up 56 clean breaks while making just 16 themselves. There is a lack of creativity in the Italian backline with few passing options open as the ball is moved one pass out for a forward to trundle up, or shifted from side to side with little penetration. If the Scottish defence can be disciplined and contain the likes of Sergio Parisse on the charge then eventually handling errors will come, allowing the home side to take over possession again.

Only France could have managed to dominate a game as much as they did in Rome and score just 4 tries. They made 20 clean breaks, beat 55 defenders, ran 856 metres with ball in hand (more than any other side has managed in this Six Nations) but continually found ways to bomb try-scoring opportunities – something that was also an issue for them in their 3 other games so far. Scotland cannot afford to be so wasteful and need to target taking points from every visit to the opposition 22.

One stat that illustrates just how much Italy have been dominated in this Six Nations – their opponents have combined for 2,596 metres gained with ball in hand; the Italians have managed just 1,253m – over a kilometre less.

Picture courtesy of Adrian Henry for the marvelous Rugby People.

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