As far as we are concerned, this weekend is the biggest on the Rugby calendar so far. There are so many intricacies and determinations riding on each game that summarise the nations efforts as a whole; the final game leaves a taste in your mouth, and although you might be flying high up to this point, all it takes is one game to go wrong and the whole Six Nations jenga tower comes collapsing on top of you. We're there any shocks or surprises when a misfunctioning Scottish side met a frankly outgunned Italian outfit?
Back and Forth First Quarter
Despite the majority of the talk heading into this game being based around the Scottish lack of luck with other teams breaking COVID protocols and how they needed a consistent run of games to keep form, it was actually Italy that struck first, efficiently and intelligently. After going full old-school Italian maul and heave, captain Bigi went over to score in the corner; an incredibly soft try that made Scotland look like they were a little dopey. Scotland then struck back with a Hookers try of their own when Cherry dotted down after the exact same move was executed by the Scottish... For a moment there, I thought game on... However, whereas Italy in the past had one great game a year where they really turn up and push a team through to the final ten minutes, this year those efforts seemed to have been spread across the first quarter of every game. Highlights like Ioane scoring against England and Bigi scoring yesterday prove that Italy goes into a game sharp and match aware, but just fall to pieces when there is a smattering of adversity. Scotland however, just looked like they were going for broke with every move, largely stemming from the do or die attitude a player like Hogg was adding into the heart of the midfield. You still felt, despite the eager content in the opening stages, that Scotland were the only team on the pitch capable of keeping this intensity.
Italian Defensive Shambles
Although many teams mock Italy for no-showing most games and being walked over by the bigger nations, in past you had to admit that at least they weren't afraid to stick their head in where they could. Although they didn't have the pace or size to compete across a full fixture, they could squeeze and hurt sides by being gutsy defenders. However, Italy's defense has become an absolute embarrassment. Sure, Scotland did throw some interesting passes, executed some clever probing kicks and cut some decisive lines, Italy however just defended from the 'James Lowe School of Biting in Unneccessarily'. Every play saw an Italian defender, flying out of the line creating so many dog legs. Those dog legs would then be intensified next phase when two players do the same thing, miss their tackles, the outside backs clammer inside to cover, leaving so much space on the outside. Honestly, Italy's defense has looked the worst of any international side I've seen play in the last two years; that includes the likes of Georgia, Fiji, England (we'll get to that) and Wales last year.
Headaches in the Midfield
Despite all the talk being about Russell's anonymity in the starting side due to injury, everyone had their eyes fully fixated in Hoggy filling at 10, when really the most exciting change was to see Jones back in the starting jersey. I've gone in record starting that Harris is a potential Lions squad member as he put in cracking performances against England and Wales whilst also carrying a dreadful Gloucester outfit in the league. However, Jones looked like a million bucks in this game. Excellent running lines, dominant hand offs and a real hot stepper, he beat his opposite number every time he touched the ball. With Johnson also putting in a great performance opening space up for the men outside of him, Scotland now have a slim, but exciting pool of centres to pick from. Harris, Redpath, Jones, Johnson, Taylor and more, that's a lineup full of ballers.
Scotland would have felt pretty sore after last weekends exploits. In the two games proper, their pack looked to be one of the most ferocious outfits in the northern hemisphere, however Ireland took them to the sword in the line out, in the scrums and on the deck... A real breakdown spanking. However, they looked the have regathered their spirits and looked far more assured in this game, bullying Italy in every area. Watson, yet again, put in another startling abrasive performance surely pushing him well in for contention to start on the Lions Tour. Sutherland looked back to his best, carrying well and putting in some huge hits around the fingers. Zander Fagerson also looked very dynamic, popping up in the midfield to hit the line with real power and tenacity. Also the line out was far more assured with Skinner putting in an excellent performance on the day. Much, much improved.
Admittedly Canna didn't put in a great shift last week, but no way should he have been dropped for this game. If nothing else, Canna gives Italy their only glimpse of defensive solidity and without him, Italy were picked apart in the backs over and over again. There is a lot of hype on Garbisi's shoulders week in, week out, but unfortunately I still don't really see it. Italy have gone backwards since he took the 10 jersey from Allan and he hasn't proved that he can organise a back line whatsoever; I understand bedding someone in early, but losing each game by 50 points and looking completely lost in defence and attack won't grow his game. I get that he has moments of class and his kicking game has been surprisingly consistent, but he's currently starting ahead of Italy's best player of the last three Six Nations and its hurting this side having no leaders or experienced heads on the pitch. I do not buy this whole 'build fresh and young now, battle in the future' when none of this side are putting in any half decent performances. This game really showed that Italy are unable to react to any game plans. Against England, they couldn't match the physicality, against Wales, they couldn't match the pragmatism at 10 or the dynamism in the back row, against France, they couldn't whether the phase play or challenge around the fringes where they are most dangerous and against Scotland yesterday, they couldn't match the speed and expansiveness of Scotlands style.
Hamish Watson - Another standout performer by the Scottish 7, bullying the Italian forwards around the park.
Stuart Hogg - We didn't mention it much in the breakdown due to some other starring performances, but Hoggy was still pure class in this game and looks to be a natural in that 10 jersey!
Huw Jones - Pace, skill and power, Jones looked back to his best this weekend and dominated his opposite number.
Duhan van der Merwe - Scored a brace and was mega physical in taking yards against the opposition. Outstanding solo performance.
Stephen Varney - Unfortunately just doesn't look ready for this level by a long shot, too inexperienced, too hesitant around the fringes and largely ineffectual.
Ignacio Brex - Has been poor throughout the whole Six Nations, really targeted in this game for his poor defence.
Paolo Garbisi - Flair is great and all but he doesn't offer a consistent platform for Italy to play from. Too complicated, unable to adapt to his teams shortcomings and set his outside backs up poorly.