Scotland near full strength in second meeting with Italy
|Scotland v Italy|
|Date: Saturday, 29 August Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh Kick-off: 15:15 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW and online|
If you were asked to name Vern Cotter's likely 'first XV' before any of pre-season had commenced, you probably wouldn't have been far off with the side that has been selected to face Italy at Murrayfield tomorrow.
There are possibly a couple of significant changes with Pete Horne winning the nod over Matt Scott and John Barclay coming in for his first start in 18 months or so.
Scott had a good game in the win against Italy last week, looking dangerous and powerful every time he had his hands on the ball, so Horne's selection speaks volumes about how he has performed.
His left-foot kicking option is of huge benefit in mixing up exit strategies and he also had plenty of top level rugby under his belt during the tail end of last season where Scott missed out because of injury.
This selection battle is by no means done and dusted but it does appear that Horne has nudged ahead in the pecking order. Even if he hasn't he will be pleased to get first crack of the whip with Finn Russell and Mark Bennett.
Working relationships and understanding are very important with this unit of the team and I'd imagine the places of Russell and Bennett are fairly secure.
I'm delighted for John Barclay. He's a class player and is very highly regarded by the Scarlets and indeed by the Welsh public for his performances in the Pro12. I hope he's used correctly as he's an excellent handler of the ball and should be central to the Scottish attacking structure, distributing and making space for others.
There has clearly been a change of opinion from the times of Cotter's predecessor Scott Johnson as fundamentally his game hasn't changed. I hear whispers that the management team have been very pleased with the stats and in particular the number of involvements (tackles, touches, clear-outs etc) that he has been having whilst with the Scarlets.
There are a number of players making their first appearances of the summer: Stuart Hogg, Bennett, Russell, Greig Laidlaw, Ryan Wilson and Jonny Gray will be desperate to make an impact.
As I said with the first batch of players before the first Test of the summer though, this is their first game in some time so don't expect miracles. Regarding the individual performances, it's all about settling into a rhythm, playing within the structures, having a good blow out and getting a win.
Particular areas of focus leading into this week will have been the defensive line speed with the inside, tighter players getting off the line quickly and preventing the Italians from getting any momentum into their game through running off nine.
Maul defence needs to step up again from last week. I actually think the Italians underused the maul, maybe to practice some other aspects of their game, but tactically I'd imagine they will use this tool more this week as it has brought success both last week and historically in this fixture.
They will look for a little bit more composure on the ball in attack and will have to look to source possession in different ways as these stats leaned heavily towards the Italians last week.
An example of how this can be done is by playing from a little bit deeper in their own half - which can often be easier as opposition wingers are often sat back for kicks.
A kicking strategy of finding space in behind to create counter-attack ball or winning back more contestable kicks rather than clearing the ball to touch would increase possession too.
A win last week was much needed for squad morale and confidence - this is a great opportunity to build on it.