Scotland v Italy
Derwent Park, Workington
Sunday 4pm (UK time)
Monday 3am (AEDT), 2am (AEST)
An intriguing match-up looms between what is surprisingly a pair of unbeaten sides. Widely expected to be among the also-rans, both Scotland and Italy look like providing more than just nuisance value as the tournament progresses.
After a well-publicised upset over the heavily-fancied English in a pre-tournament trial, Italy were impressive in a dominant win over Wales as their NRL contingent – including the Minichiello brothers Anthony and Mark, Roosters back rower Aiden Guerra, Tigers back James Tedesco and Newcastle winger Josh Mantellato – ran amok.
Scotland – a team with fewer NRL players than almost any other side in the tournament – were expected to fold to a strong Tongan side that contains plenty of top-line talent. But in a gripping match in which Scotland ran out to a big 20-4 lead only to find themselves behind late in the match, the Bravehearts were able to find a match-winning try through fullback Matt Russell.
That win came despite Scotland scoring fewer tries: Tonga converted just two of five tries, but Scottish captain Danny Brough was flawless with his four conversions and landed one from two in his penalty goal attempts. Scotland also lost the yardage battle badly, making just 990 metres against 1436 by Tonga – a stat they will need to address against the Azzurri.
Italy were dominant in all the key areas in their six-tries-to-three win, notching nine line breaks against just one from Wales, with three breaks and two tries to Guerra, playing in the centres.
Only one team from the three in Group C will progress, making every match vital. Tonga now face an uphill battle, but the winner of this match will give themselves a huge chance to move into the quarter finals to face the Group B winners, likely to be New Zealand.
Watch Out Scotland: Premiership-winning back rower Aiden Guerra didn’t look at all out of place in the centres (he also scored a try in his only start in the centres for the Roosters this year), notching three line breaks, two tries, 121 metres and an unbelievable 11 tackle breaks! Italy’s front row combination was also devastating: former Tiger and Titan and current St Helens forward Anthony Laffranchi made 124 metres from 17 runs. Canberra prop Paul Vaughan was even more damaging, with 141 metres from just 16 runs with three tackle breaks.
Watch Out Italy: They’ve already caused one upset and now the Bravehearts will be looking for another. As mentioned above they’ll need to find some more metres if they’re to triumph over Italy and two key men will be powerful Cowboys centre Kane Linnett (124 metres and three tackle breaks against Tonga) and Titans prop Luke Douglas (124 metres and 42 tackles). Skipper and seasoned Super League campaigner Danny Brough was the 2013 Man of Steel, and his steady nerves were vital in guiding his side to an upset over Tonga.
Key Match-Up: Anthony Minichiello v Matt Russell. The Azzurri skipper (91 metres and one try against Wales) is one of the most experienced players in the tournament from any team and will be a reliable presence at the back. Scotland’s not-so-secret weapon could be livewire fullback Matt Russell, whose two tries and eight tackle breaks were crucial in the win over Tonga. The young local product would likely be playing for England if Sam Tomkins wasn’t around and provides some serious X-factor for the Bravehearts. They may not come together in the middle much but their respective contributions, particularly on kick returns, will be crucial in deciding their team’s fortunes.
Televised: 7mate – Live Monday 2.30am (NSW); 1.30am (Qld).
The Way We See It: The Bravehearts have already shown that NRL experience won’t necessarily decide every game but they won’t be able to catch Italy off guard. The Azzurri were strong against Wales and while Scotland will put up a stern fight, they may not have the firepower to go back to back. Italy by six.
*Statistics: NRL Stats