Super Saturday kicked off with a strange feeling in Murrayfield as Scotland prepared to play their penultimate match in the 2021 Six Nations against Italy. The Scots were coming in off the back of a disappointing loss to Ireland, but soon found themselves falling behind to a try from Luca Bigi, who powered over from short range after the Scottish pack collapsed the Italian lineout drive, Paolo Garbisi kicking the conversion from the touchline. Poor Italian discipline soon gave the Scots a chance to repay the favour in kind, and David Cherry rode the power of his pack to go over for his first Test try. Stuart Hogg missed the conversion but the Scots soon had the lead, with Huw Jones breaking from his own 22 off the restart and bringing the ball up to the Italian 22, and when the ball came to the left, the Scots worked an overlap to release Duhan van der Merwe, who brought the ball under the posts to score and allow his captain an easy conversion. Garbisi cut the lead with a penalty, but Italy then shot themselves in the foot once again, with Federic Mori getting sent to the bin on his first Test start for a no-arms challenge on Sam Johnson. The Scots kicked the resulting penalty to touch, and after a series of phases in the Italian 22, Sean Maitland scythed through a gap in midfield. He was stopped just short of the line but offloaded to Huw Jones, who was tackled immediately, but an offload off the floor allowed Darcy Graham to go over for the try, Hogg again missing off the tee. Italy defended strongly but once again found themselves conceding a second try while down a man, with van der Merwe breaking down the left wing and holding himself up long enough in the tackle to offload to a supporting Stuart Hogg, who released the flying Huw Jones with a lovely switch to send the centre over for the bonus point try – the fastest against Italy in this year’s competition, clocked at 28 minutes – which Hogg converted for a 24-10 halftime lead.
The Scots were in no mood to sit back and rest after the break, with David Cherry being quickly sent over for another try from a driving maul just minutes after the restart and things got even worse for the Azzurri on 53 minutes as Seb Negri was adjudged to have deliberately slapped the ball down right after 2 other penalty offences from teammates, leading to him being sent to the bin. Once again, Scotland took advantage of the extra man by calling for the scrum, and after Sam Johnson took the crash ball ball up to the try line, Scott Steele sniped off the breakdown and twisted his was over for his first Test try. The Azzurri’s defence stood firm despite the numerical disadvantage and it looked like they would see out the rest of the period unscathed, until Monty Ioane was sent to the bin with 1 minute left on Negri’s removal for a tip tackle on Stuart Hogg. Though they couldn’t take advantage of the 2-man difference, Scotland were camped inside the Italian 22, and when Stuart Hogg released van der Merwe with a pass between his legs, the winger looked certain t score, only for the covering Marco Zanon to dislodge the ball on the line. This only delayed the Scots for a few minutes though, as Scotland won a penalty in the corner and went for the quick tap, and after a couple of phases, Sam Johnson came on a beautiful out-to-in line to crash over for another try. Entering the final minutes, the Azzurri found themselves in the Scotland 22, but the ball was turned over and a show-and-go from replacement halfback Ali Price saw him break away to the halfway line, where he found van der Merwe on the charge and set him free for his second try of the game. As the clock went into the red, Italy had one final chance to finish on a high with a lineout 5m from the Scottish line, but the Scots got up to steal the ball and kick the ball out to finish with a 52-10 victory, their biggest margin of victory over the Azzurri.
With Finn Russell still going through concussion protocols and Adam Hastings banned for this match, we knew that we would be seeing someone different at fly half for this match. That said, it was still a shock to see Stuart Hogg being selected to wear the 10 shirt.
While Hogg had a good game, it was a big risk to put him in considering any concussion would rule him out of Friday’s finale against France while even more importantly in the short term, it was taking him away from a position where he had been excelling and putting him into an area with less space.
In years gone by, I could have understood this decision as Hogg would often be the third on the depth chart in the Scottish camp, but now, he must surely be fifth at best, with Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt giving Gregor Townsend the great situation of having 4 legitimate specialist 10s in contention to play, before we reach players like Hogg, who can fit in there. To me, this was the perfect opportunity for Townsend to play van der Walt from the start and give him the full 80 minutes against a struggling defence, to get him more experienced at the international level, perhaps with Hogg providing support from the fullback position if Townsend thought it necessary.
When it comes to the big matches, you are going to want to put out your best available team, and with Russell and Hastings missing, putting Hogg at 10 is not going to be as good for the team as playing him at 15 with a specialist at 10. Hopefully, van der Walt gets the chance to show what he can do in the near future.
Every week during the Six Nations, I find myself having to defend Italy and their inclusion in a Tier 1 tournament, but now it’s getting really hard to do so.
This tournament started with some shades of positivity as the youth was brought in, but as time went on, that positivity drained away as the Azzurri failed to keep 15 men on the pitch while their discipline disappeared altogether. And it’s not just the discipline. Throughout the tournament, restarts were put out on the full, kicks in open play were aimless, penalties to touch either stayed in play or went out to touch in goal, players were pinged for advancing in front of the kicker.
Yes, some key players were missing, while inexperienced players were played in some key positions, but the attacking promise would last for a while, then the team would concede a couple of easy tries and everything would fall apart, with the second half being spent largely in the Italian half, with the Azzurri never looking threatening.
When you look at the players, there is quality there, but the team performances are not living up to their promise, and a record losing margin against Scotland has consigned the team to their worst Six Nations in terms of tries and points conceded.
Something needs to change, and for me, that comes at the head coach position. There needs to be leadership from the top, but Franco Smith seems to be struggling to get the team playing even more than he has struggled with his mask throughout the tournament. He has moved the team in the right direction since replacing Conor O’Shea, but his is a tenure full of losses. Conor O’Shea had to rebuild the framework of Italian rugby, Franco Smith introduced the youngsters to Test rugby, and now it is time to bring in a new coach to give this team a clean slate and take this team to the next level and become to Italy what Milton Haig was to Georgia and Eddie Jones was to Japan.
Similar to last week, this was such an abject performance from Italy, it makes it harder to form a proper opinion on players, but Duhan van der Merwe put in a great response to last week’s quiet game, with today’s performance highlighting both his pace and power. He offers something different to other Home Nations wings and reminds me of George North on the tour to Australia 8 years ago. Meanwhile, a Man of the Match performance from Hamish Watson will certainly help his case with so much depth available in the back row.