Eyes On: Ireland v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Ireland v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

The warm-up matches for the World Cup began on Saturday with Ireland taking on Italy at the Aviva Stadium. Both teams rested the vast majority of their starters, giving the rest of their squad a chance to earn a spot in the World Cup squads. Italy started well and put the Irish under pressure with 2 tries in the first quarter, but they were kept scoreless after that as Ireland grew into that match on their way to a 29-10 victory, through the Irish will be nervous after Joey Carbery left the field with an ankle injury.

Ireland

With the starting XV made up of players hoping to earn a spot on the plane, everybody will have wanted to make a good impression and stand out to the coaches. This led to a rough start to the match as the players struggled to gel, even against an equally experimental Italian team. After about 20 minutes, though, they began to settle down and find their rhythm. The defence took over in a way reminiscent of their 2018 Six Nations victory, while Joey Carbery and Luke McGrath took control of the game.

Obviously they will have much harder tests if they intend to win the World Cup, but if they can get their stars back on form, South Africa’s recent performances have shown just how effective a top defence can be, even against some of the most dangerous attacking teams.

Italy

During the Six Nations, I accused Italy of having too basic a gameplan to have success against Tier 1 Nations. Watching this match, I couldn’t think of anything else. This really came to a head for me when Callum Braley came on for his debut. As a regular last season for a Gloucester team that was great to watch in attack, he is used to a structured but varied offence. Soon after his introduction, I saw him bring the ball away from the ruck to the open side and look to slip the ball back to a runner coming between him and the breakdown… only to find he didn’t have any runner there!

Every single breakdown appeared to end with either a pick and go, a pass to a forward taking the ball (usually standing still) from the 9 or a pass to the fly half that would just see the ball shipped down the line. This was resulting in the Italians spending as much time going backwards on attack as they did going forwards, while one attack came to a dire end as flanker Giovanni Licata decided the best option was to kick the ball, only to slice it into the air.

The Italians are putting together a strong team, with great runners in the forwards and backs who can exploit the space, but they need to improve their variety in attack if they want to trouble a decent defence.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

The Irish back 3 has some great depth, but aside from Jacob Stockdale, there are no real standouts at the moment. As such, a Man of the Match performance from Andrew Conway that saw him dominate his opposite number in the air and rack up 51 metres and a try will have gone a long way to earning him a spot on the plane. Luke McGrath also stood out to me as he did a good job of keeping his pack organised and linking well with the backs, while he was just an unfortunate stumble away from a try. For the Italians, Tommaso Benvenuti was one of the most dangerous men on the pitch despite little help in the centre, while Callum Braley set a good tempo after his introduction and brings a good level of top flight experience to the squad.

One player who will be very nervous following this match is Joey Carbery, who went off with an ankle injury. Luckily, the ankle isn’t broken but he now has to hope he can recover at a good enough rate to not be ruled out of the tournament. John Cooney must also be feeling pretty nervous after good performances by McGrath and Kieran Marmion (who was set as Conor Murray’s deputy before he got injured) in this match. For the Azzuri, Giovanni Licata did little to distinguish himself in a back row that it bursting with quality, while Giulio Bisegni really struggled to compete aerially against Conway and struggled to make an impact on the game in attack.


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RWC2019: Predicting the Italy Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Italy Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. While the announcement of the Wales and Scotland training squads understandably got the majority of airtime over recent week, Conor O’Shea also announced a 44-man preliminary squad ahead of the tournament.

Having really enjoyed testing myself predicting the final 31-man squads for Wales and Scotland, I decided to challenge myself to do the same for Italy. This one was definitely the hardest so far, as I found that some areas of the squad were full of talent so it was hard to narrow it down, whereas in other positions I found myself only knowing a couple of players. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Conor O’Shea will take, so we have tried to avoid any biases we have towards any specific players.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Italy’s World Cup squad will be…

Prop

As with the previous squads I have predicted, I have predicted 5 props in the squad, which appears to be a common number for World Cup squads. Simone Ferrari and Tiziano Pasquali were the starters at tighthead during the Six Nations so I think they will make the squad, along with Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio at loosehead. The final spot goes to Cherif Traore, who was on the bench for every game and added a real physical presence when coming on.

Hooker

Having picked 3 hookers in the 2017 and 2018 Six Nations squads, O’Shea only selected 2 this year, which I think is a sign towards him only taking 2 players at this position to Japan. Provided he can recover in time, Leonardo Ghiraldini is surely nailed on for a spot a part of the leadership group, while Benetton’s Luca Bigi will continue to back him up. Should Ghiraldini not recover in time, I expect Oliviero Fabiani to take his place as the more experienced of the remaining options.

Second Row

This was one of the hardest to pick as O’Shea has named 5 quality players in his extended squad, but I expect him to only take 4 of them with him to Japan. Dean Budd, David Sisi and Federico Ruzza covered the starting positions during this year’s Six Nations, so I have them nailed on, leaving just 1 spot. Marco Fuser is a talented and experienced international, but you don’t get much more experienced than Alessandro Zanni, who is also able to cover in the back row, which I think earns him the final spot.

Back Row

Captain Sergio Parisse is a definite, along with Seb Negri and Braam Steyn, who were heavily involved in the Six Nations. I also think that Jake Polledri’s strong performances for Gloucester will earn him a spot on the plane. Jimmy Tuivaiti gets the next spot for me, having been a physical presence off the bench in the Six Nations. Assuming that O’Shea chooses to take one more back rower, I think that Maxime Mbanda gets the spot, though I can also envisage a situation where O’Shea chooses to take Zanni as his 6th back rower and take Marco Fuser as an extra lock.

Scrum Half

Tito Tebaldi was the go-to starter during the Six Nations so looks an obvious choice for the squad, while I think his back-up Guglielmo Palazzani will also make it onto the plane. I initially had O’Shea only taking 2 scrum halves, but having gone through the rest of the back line, I found myself with 1 more spot to use here. One of my concerns about Italy during the Six Nations was how basic their attacking was off 9 as I don’t feel either of the scrum halves selected did the best job of controlling the game. Callum Braley has been called into O’Shea’s recent training squads and I think again his experience this year as a regular for Gloucester could just get him onto the plane as the 31st man.

Fly Half

Tommaso Allan appears to be the incumbent in the 10 jersey at the moment, earning his place in the squad. Ian McKinley was the man on the bench in the Six Nations, so I feel that his incredible story continues with a place in the World Cup squad. Due to McKinley being able to shift into the centre, I think this also opens up a spot in the squad for Carlo Canna.

Centre

If you’re keeping count, you’ll realise that I have only 8 spaces left on the plane to cover both the centres and the back 3. In a group of 5 talented individuals, I think that 4 of the players selected for the training squad make it onto the plane. Michele Campagnaro is one of the best backs in the squad so is a certain pick if he is fit, alongside Luca Morisi, who was impressive in this year’s Six Nations. Tommaso Castello also looked impressive when he came in for Campagnaro, so earns a seat on the plane. Marco Zanon has limited international experience and with the lack of numbers left for the back 3 and McKinley able to cover centre, I think Tommaso Benvenuti’s versatility sees him going to Japan.

Back 3

And so we come to the final 4 players. Matteo Minozzi was the star of the 2018 Six Nations so will make the squad, as will Jayden Hayward, who covered his absence this year and can also cover a range of positions in the back line. The final 2 spots go to Edoardo Padovani and Angelo Esposito, who were regulars in this year’s Six Nations starting XVs.


So those are my picks for Italy’s 31-man World Cup Squad, who do you think makes the list?

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations reached its final weekend, beginning with a bottom of the table clash between Italy and France. Bonus points in the earlier rounds meant that it was impossible for Italy to avoid the Wooden Spoon but there was still plenty of pride to play for. Italy took an early lead through a pair of Tommaso Allan penalties, before Antoine Dupont scored a try and Romain Ntamack gave France a 6-10 halftime lead. Yoann Huget scored early in the second half and though Tito Tebaldi kept things close with a try of his own, France held on for the win and a late score from Damian Penaud confirmed a 14-25 victory for Les Bleus and consigned Italy to another year without a Six Nations victory.

Learning the hard way

Injuries to Michele Campagnaro and Tommaso Castello led to Conor O’Shea handing a debut at 13 to 21-year-old Marco Zanon. The Benetton centre has come through the international ranks via the U20s and Emerging Italy team, however did not make his first Pro14 start until September.

That inexperience in professional rugby showed in this match. On one of his first touches of the ball, he tried to arc his run around the French defence but was unable to get to the outside and found himself being bundled into touch too easily. With the score at 6-10 he had the chance to put Italy ahead as he ran onto Allan’s grubber through, only for the ball to bounce off the post and evade his grasp. While the bounce of a rugby ball is always hard to predict, I think many more experienced players would have recognised the chance of the ball hitting the post and – knowing the space they had – slowed their run so that they could react to the ball coming off the post.

Unfortunately for Zanon, that was not the moment people will remember looking back as with the score at 14-20 with just 6 minutes left, Italy worked the ball out to him on the overlap about 7 metres out. While he made it to the line, as he went to ground he allowed Damian Penaud to dislodge the ball and force a knock-on over the line. While it was a great effort from Penaud, it was made easier for him as Zanon dived for the line with the ball in his right hand rather than switching it to his left hand to protect it.

He is not the first and he won’t be the last person to mess up with the game on the line, but this was a game that Italy could and possibly should have won but for his errors. Hopefully he will be able to put this setback behind him and learn from this match.

The kids are alright

France may have had their good and bad moments during this tournament, but one plus point for them has been the development of some of their younger talents.

Demba Bamba was a player I picked as one to watch this tournament. Despite not celebrating his 21st birthday until the day after this match and not even playing in the Top 14 – he currently plays for Brive in Pro D2 but will be playing for Lyon next season – he did not look out of place on the senior international scene. He may have conceded a couple of penalties but this will improve with time, while he is already showing himself as a comfortable ball carrier.

Romain Ntamack has really grown into the tournament. Against Italy, he varied the attacking game well to keep the Italian defence guessing, while also controlling the game and knowing when to take a drop goal to keep the score ticking over. More importantly though, he also took on the role of goal kicker for this match and performed will, despite not even being the first choice kicker at his club. He will certainly have harder tests than against Italy, but this will be a great confidence boost for him and it is a sign that he is growing well into his role with the team.

Damian Penaud is developing into yet another great player on the wing for France. While it probably helped that he was not tested by the Italian kicking game in the same was as against England or Ireland, he looked very assured on the wing and seemed to be getting used to the position. He made a great covering tackle on Marco Zanon and was smart enough to target the ball rather than the player, dislodging it to save a vital try. In attack, his 98 metres made were the more than any other player on the pitch and it was his break that set up Antoine Dupont for his try, while his try in the final minutes secured the victory.

Dupont may not have had the perfect game as he occasionally struggled with forwards getting in his way at the breakdown, but this control of his pack is something that will develop as he continues to play with them… assuming the coaches don’t continue to overhaul the team every other match. He was one of the most exciting 9s in the tournament this year when given some space and his support line off Penaud that led to his try was typical of is playing style and I am sure we will see him getting over the try line plenty more times over the coming years.

The French Wolverine

While many of the younger players impressed in this match, one of the more experienced players also caught my eye. Maxime Médard has been in and out of the national team for years, but in this game I thought he really showed his quality.

Thomas Ramos has made the attack more exciting but has not been the safest defensively or in kick coverage, which is not what you want when you have attack-only Yoann Huget in the back three as well. Médard however was a calming influence at the back, tidying things up and generally making the right decision, while picking his moment to attack to create chaos, such as when he drew in Angelo Esposito and released Penaud with a simple pass to set up Dupont’s try.

With so many young players in the French back line at the moment, the coaches need to continue selecting Médard to increase their chances of success in Japan.

Eyes On: England v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

England looked to get over their loss to Wales with a match at home against Italy on Saturday. The home team made just a handful of changes and their strength showed as they put the Italians to the sword, going in 31-7 ahead at half time courtesy of tries from Jamie George, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and Brad Shields. Tuilagi and Shields each added after the break and tries from George Kruis and Dan Robson completed a 57-14 victory.

Bish! Bash! Bosh!

England only made a couple of changes for this match, but they were notable ones as Ben Te’o came in for Henry Slade (with Tuilagi shifting out to 13) and Joe Cokanasiga came in on the wing. The England back line has generally been rather lightweight, but the trio of Te’o, Tuliagi and Cokanasiga had a greater combined weight than heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. A very different approach to usual from England and one that overwhelmed the Italian defence.

The massive midfield of Te’o and Tuilagi frequently forced the Italians to bunch in midfield to deal with them – not helped by the loss of Michele Campagnaro and his replacement Tommaso Castello to injury before half time, leaving Ian McKinley in the centre – and this created space out wide for Cokanasiga and the smaller, faster England backs to exploit. Cokanasiga was a monster in this game, dominating Angelo Esposito in attack and finishing with 107 metres off 8 carries. Even when he was eventually stopped, he always looked able to get his hands free for an offload to a supporting player.

Tuilagi had a great game and looked much more of a threat at 13 where he has that extra bit of space to exploit, running for 82 metres from 8 carries, behind only Cokanasiga for metres made. Te’o may not have been so obvious in attack, but the threat that he possessed played a big factor in creating the space for those outside him.

In defence, there was room for improvement as England’s narrow defensive tactic did lead to Tuilagi occasionally struggling to cover across and Cokanasiga making the wrong decision, but that is always the risk with a group that have not played together before.

Of course, it must be taken into account that Italy are not going to have been the hardest test of this line-up. While I think Henry Slade has done a great job in this tournament and has been a vital cog in defence, I would like to see England continue with this back line against Scotland (though again, the injuries in their squad mean that the resilience of the Scottish defence will likely be somewhat lacking) and develop it into another legitimate option with the World Cup looming.

Predictable Italy

Italy had their moments of success in attack, but not as many as they would have liked. Despite making 160 carries (40 more than England), they made only 373 metres compared to the home team’s 643.

While part of this can be attributed to losing such impressive players in midfield and also finishing with a prop in the back row, their attacks were often too easy for England to deal with. Italy had the ball 61% of the game, yet for all that possession they only made 5 clean breaks over the 80 minutes, compared to England’s 22.

Much of this can be attributed to their predictable attacking making it easy for a strong English defence. The Italians have a number of impressive ball carriers in the pack yet they are largely wasted by always taking the crash ball off the scrum half. There is no variation in the game, which makes is easy to defend. If they were to start crashing their ball carriers off 9, back inside from the 10, outside the 10 or even further out into the back line, then they would make so many more metre and generate quicker attacking ball to take advantage of a retreating defence.

Tito Tebaldi has looked impressive when given space to attack into, but I do not thing either he or Tommasso Allan have the ability to control a game and get the best out of the team in the same way as their opposite numbers. Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez were such a big part of the Italian team of the ‘90s and early ‘00s and they have never been fully replaced. If Conor O’Shea can find the talent at 9 and 10, then it will not take much to unlock this team.

Innovation

Scrums are not something that can often be considered fun to watch these days, but here was a very interesting moment at one of the set pieces in this game. With England set to have the feed around halfway on the right hand side of the pitch, Joe Cokanasiga packed down at number 8 while Billy Vunipola placed himself in the back line.

Putting a winger into the back row is not often going to work well – if you haven’t watched the clip of Jonny May at flanker against Argentina, then you’re missing out! – but Cokanasiga looked at home at the back of the scrum and with him being only slightly lighter than Billy Vunipola, there was no real drop in quality during the scrum. The ball came out to the back line, where Vunipola took the crash ball into the Italian midfield.

While I am not sold on Cokanasiga as the regular starter yet, I do like the willingness of the England attack to try something different when he is on the pitch. With Vunipola in the back line, it is understandable to expect him to take the crash ball here, but having done that on this occasion, I would not be surprised to see England take this a step further and use the tactic again in the future, but with Vunipola either as a decoy runner or even as a pivot, similar to what we see from Mako Vunipola at times in open play.

Eyes On: Italy v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Sunday saw Ireland bring an end to Round 3 with a trip to Italy. While they made a number of changes in the pack, especially the tight 5, they put out their best available back line and tries from Quinn Roux and Jacob Stockdale in the first quarter suggested things could get out of hand. Italy got back into things though and tries from Edoardo Padovani and Luca Morisi gave them an unlikely 16-12 halftime lead. That was it for Italy though as they did not score a point in the second half, but they still made things hard for Ireland, who scored a further two tries through Keith Earls and Conor Murray to pull out a 16-26 victory.

 

Tried and tested

They may have got the win and the 4-try bonus point, but this was not a great performance from Ireland. The forwards went toe-to-toe with the Italians, but the backs struggled to have any significant impact on the game, with Roux and Earls going over from close range off Conor Murray playing the ball away from the ruck, Murray breaking off a driving maul and Stockdale pouncing on Italian errors at a kickoff.

Murray may have been credited with 2 assists and a try, but this glosses over a performance that was well below the level we expect of him, while Johnny Sexton was arguably even worse outside him. Sexton was also removed from kicking duties in favour of Murray.

After the game, Joe Schmidt appeared to suggest that Sexton had been roughed up a bit following the pass, but this is something that all top fly halves deal with when they take the ball to the line, yet Sexton appears to be the one who is most affected in terms of injuries. And yet despite both of them putting in poor performances, Murray was not replaced by John Cooney until the 71st minute and Jack Carty wasn’t brought on for Sexton until the 78th minute.

If I am either of those replacements, especially Carty, watching the man in front of them put in a poor performance and struggling to get the team going, then I would consider such a small cameo to be an insult. I understand that Murray and Sexton are the tried and tested options and I’m not suggesting that they be dropped moving forward, but if they get injured during the World Cup, then Joe Schmidt is running the risk of having to play someone who has just a handful of minutes’ international experience in 2 positions that are key to controlling the game.

Positives and negatives

Like their previous matches this year, this match suggested that Italy are a team on the up. They came into this game with Jake Polledri still unavailable and now missing Seb Negri and Sergio Parisse. Jimmy Tuivaiti and Maxime Mbanda played well in their absence (Steyn moved to 8 for this game) but the pair were both forced off the field due to injury. Jayden Hayward continues to play well in the absence of Matteo Minozzi and Tomasso Castello looked impressive when he replaced the injured Michele Campagnaro. For a team that has often struggled for depth, it is great to see that the depth in this squad is finally developing and while they didn’t score in the second half, the fact that they held Ireland to just 7 points in the final quarter is a testament to how much they have improved as this is usually when their performance has dropped off in recent years.

They are not perfect though. They still need to start scoring more tries and also make silly mistakes – they messed up 2 kickoff receptions in a row, 1 of which gifted Jacob Stockdale a try. Most importantly, though, they need to find a reliable kicker, as Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley combined for 33% success off the tee, including a miss with the last play of the game to deny them a losing bonus point – why Conor O’Shea was adamant they attempt a difficult penalty from the touchline rather than kick for the corner is beyond me!

While it may go down as another loss, Italy are clearly taking steps towards claiming a big scalp in the tournament if they can continue to improve.

They deserve better

While I completely appreciate that Italy have been largely disappointing since their inclusion into the 6 Nations, I think the way that they are treated at times is absolutely awful.

Pundits and commentators are quick to throw out the stat of how long it has been since Italy won a match in the tournament and how many times they have been awarded the Wooden Spoon, while also talking about how well Georgia have done in recent years and leading the conversations about whether it is time Georgia replaced Italy in the tournament, without any mention that Italy actually won in Georgia 17-28 the last time they played each other! Georgia have arguably outgrown heir league, and the easy wins will mean that they continue to gain (arguably a small amount of) ranking points during the Rugby Europe Championship, while Italy are up against 5 Tier 1 nations so are always going to be at risk of losing ranking points during the 6 Nations, making the comparison to Georgia in the World Rankings look even worse.

The way they are treated during matches also does not seem in line with the Tier 1 nations in the tournament. Tito Tebaldi was (in my opinion) clearly blocked by Rob Kearney when chasing kick through into the Irish 22 – Tebaldi clearly turned away from Kearney, who continued to run across the scrum half and body-check him. Had this been the other way round, I would be shocked if the referee had not stopped the game to check the infringement with the TMO, yet in this case Glen Jackson chose to play on and had the TMO take a quick check in the background, while the commentary was immediately accusing Tebaldi of running into the defender and made no comment when the replay showed otherwise. I can’t help but feel that had it been a Tier 1 nation involved rather than Italy, the whole incident would have been treated very differently.

While I agree that Italy need to keep improving, all I ask is that they be given an equal footing and the same respect as Tier 1 nations and the teams around them in the world rankings.

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales came to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday looking for a record-equalling 11 consecutive victories. After being handed victory by the French last week, Warren Gatland chose to make 10 changes to his squad and it may have backfired as Braam Steyn scored the only try of the first half compared to 4 penalties from Dan Biggar, for a 7-12 halftime score. Wales improved again in the second half with tries from Josh Adams and Owen Watkin, while Edoardo Padovani scored late to make the final 5 minutes interesting but the Italians could not push on for a losing bonus point and Thomas Young had a try disallowed at the death, resulting in a 15-26 final score.

 

Too many changes

It’s a familiar tale for Wales under Warren Gatland: a match against a weaker opposition that everybody expects to be an easy victory result in a raft of changes to the starting lineup. The starting team put in a poor performance and struggle to pull away, leading to a bevy of early substitutions as the usual starters are forced to come on to save the game.

I felt that last week’s halfback partnership of Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe should have started again this week to get used to playing together at international level, but instead Dan Biggar was brought back in with Aled Davies at 9. Biggar did well off the tee but struggled to create anything in open play, while his kicking out of hand was poor at times with kicks going out on the full and one cross-kick to Josh Adams deep in the Wales half won by Padovani to put Wales under unnecessary pressure. Davies looked largely out of his depth and his hesitation at the back of the ruck and maul led to a couple of big turnovers for Italy.

Young and Josh Navidi did everything they could to win ball back and give the Welsh a platform to attack from, but the back line looked disjointed, likely due to the lack of time playing together as a unit, which limited the effectiveness of a dangerous back 3 (Josh Adams, Jonah Holmes and Liam Williams).

I understand wanting to get experience for the next players up and testing the depth of your squad, but this close to the World Cup it feels like there are some key positions that are not yet sorted and it means that the players are not playing together regularly enough to build up a chemistry. Not only that, but with bonus points now being part of the Six Nations, Wales have potentially put their position in the table at risk by failing to come away with 4 tries against Italy, which is something that I can see most teams doing.

Signs of improvement

Italy may be on a disappointing run of results in the Six Nations, but there are clear signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. With so many influential players having retired over recent years, the Irishman has not just been working to improve the national team, but the whole of Italian Rugby. Things are clearly starting to improve in the domestic game with Benetton currently sitting 2ⁿᵈ in their Pro14 conference and 3 wins for Zebre, the U20s are on the up and bringing through talent for the national team, who are playing a much more attractive and well-rounded brand of rugby than they used to.

In the first half especially, their defence held strong and it was only moments of indiscipline that allowed Wales to get on the scoresheet. They scored the same number of tries as Wales, made 5 clean breaks to Wales’ 4 and on the day had a much more effective lineout. In recent years, they have found themselves falling off at the end of matches, the last 15 minutes was probably their best period of the game against Scotland last week and they held their own once again this week, with Padovani finishing off a well-worked try near the end.

There are still areas where they can improve, such as their discipline, their control of the game via the halfbacks, the scrum and their general depth of talent, but this is a team that is clearly going in the right direction and O’Shea should be commended for this.

Options in the back row

Arguably Italy’s star player in this game was openside flanker Braam Steyn. The South African-born Benetton flanker’s 24 metres from 12 runs was the most by an Italian forward, his 20 tackles was the most by any man on the pitch (next was Thomas Young – 15), he was one of the main targets in the lineout, won a couple of turnovers… oh and scored the opening try!

Jake Polledri’s injury has been a shame as it is a big loss to the Italian back row, but the back row of Steyn, Seb Negri and captain Sergio Parisse have played well and led by example. When Polledri is back from injury, I would love to see Conor O’Shea find a way to get all 4 of them into the starting XV, potentially by moving Negri into the second row to free up a spot for Polledri on the flank.

Will O’Shea do this, or will he choose to keep one of them as a impact player off the bench?

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Scotland kicked off their 2019 Six Nations campaign at Murrayfield with the visit of Conor O’Shea’s Italy. Though they dominated territory and possession, they could only manage a 12-3 lead going into halftime, courtesy of a brace from Blair Kinghorn. But they came alive in the second half and Kinghorn finished his hat-trick, while Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris also crossed the line. Italy put on a late surge and following a yellow card to Simon Berghan, they scored 17 points in the final 10 minutes to give the final score a respectable look at 33-20.

Best men on the pitch

What a match for Blair Kinghorn! The Edinburgh star had a fantastic match and was well deserving of his hat-trick – Scotland’s first in the Six Nations! The crazy thing considering how accomplished he looked on that left wing is that his preferred position is fullback. Of course, with Stuart Hogg available (he also had a stunning performance), the 15 shirt is firmly taken, but I really like that Gregor Townsend is willing to find a way to play the pair of them in the team together and get his best players onthe pitch at the same time.

He is by no means the first man to do this. Liam Williams has regularly played on the wing for Wales to accommodate Leigh Halfpenny and Ben Smith has spent a large chunk of his New Zealand career shifting between the 14 and 15 shirts depending on who else has been selected in the back line.

Will Conor O’Shea also look at this in the future? With last year’s breakout star Matteo Minozzi missing this year, Jayden Hayward has the chance to show what he can do in this team. While he was not as much of an attacking threat, he was very solid in defence and also put in a couple of big kicks. I felt that Michele Campagnaro did well but received limited ball out on the wing, while he also defended quite narrow at times, likely due to much of his international career coming at 13. I felt that the centre pairing had a limited impact in attack – though I will give them another chance as it sounded as if they have been suffering with illness – so it will be interesting to see if O’Shea tries to work both Hayward and Minozzi into the team when the latter is available again.

Impressive debut

This match saw Glasgow centre Sam Johnson handed his international debut and it’s safe to say that he didn’t look out of place in the team. He combined well with Finn Russell and the rest of the back line and was involved heavily in working a number of attacks that maybe didn’t always get the finish they deserved.

What I did notice though is that the man outside him, Huw Jones, had one of his quieter Six Nations matches (not helping my fantasy team) and I wonder if having more of an all-rounder at 12 – compared to the more defensive Alex Dunbar or the distributor Peter Horne – takes away from his own game.

Of course, this is just one game and Johnson will come up against much tougher challenges than Italy, so it will be interesting to see how the midfield performs for the rest of the tournament.

Another man down

While Gregor Townsend won’t be happy with Italy’s late fightback, I think what will worry him more will have been the injury to Sam Skinner. The Exeter forward covers lock and flanker but limped off after just 15 minutes, having rolled his ankle.

With both the Gray brothers currently missing from the second row and the back row having to make do without Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, David Denton, Matt Fagerson and Blade Thomson, the last thing Scotland can afford now is any more injuries in this area if they want a chance of winning the tournament.