Scotland and Italy might have different aspirations through this Six Nations but the bookmakers might have underestimated the Azzuri in their opening clash today.
Scotland are rated as strong favourites, and for good reason. This is one of the best sides that the country has ever had, and even with injuries, they can expect to be extremely competitive during this Championship, especially at Murrayfield. Indeed, only New Zealand and South Africa have managed to get the better of them in front of their own fans over the past two seasons, with all of the 5 Nations beaten there.
The club game has also been in rude health. Both the Glasgow Warrior and Edinburgh have made it through to the last four of the European Champions Cup, and the few players lining up on the pitch that aren’t based in either side have had extremely good seasons.
However, whilst Scotland have improved a lot in recent years, so have the Azzurri. The appointment of Conor O’Shea to coach the team has improved not only the national team but the whole club set up in Italy. Benetton Treviso won half their games in the Pro 14 last season whilst even Zebre managed to win seven games and return 39 points, and this season Benetton have won seven games and currently sit third, in the playoffs.
Their attacking sensibilities have improved too – they scored 12 tries last year, just two less than England – and they do have the players to strike a blow here. Tommaso Allan has finally given them a stable fly-half outlet and he has talented backline players to hit in the shape of Michele Campagnaro and Jaden Hayward to name just two.
First up might be the best time to catch Scotland, who have suffered from a large number of injuries in the buildup. Hamish Watson will miss the first half of the Championship and both Gray Brothers will miss today’s game, leaving Scotland potentially light in the front five and at the breakdown, and also in terms of experience.
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini will have his 100th cap today whilst Sergio Parisse has had a career even longer than the Brexit negotiations to add to an experienced pack.
At some point, Scotland’s backline – which still includes the brilliant Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, along with Tommy Seymour – should be able to cut loose enough to create chances, but Scotland have only covered a 24-point handicap against the Italians once – and that was with a 29-0 victory here two years ago. This Italy side looks to have improved in attack since then and the bookmakers might have the gap too big.
2 pts Italy +23 (10/11 general)
3 pts Italy +11 1st Half Handicap (evs general)