Preview: Italy v Scotland
SIX NATIONS ROUND THREE: Franco Smith can smell blood as the new Italy coach prepares for this first home game in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday against a weakened Scotland in the Six Nations.
Both teams are looking for their first win of the tournament after two defeats apiece, with the loser likely to end up with the wooden spoon this campaign.
Italy are on a run of 24 consecutive defeats in the tournament, stretching back to 2015, and want to avoid finishing last for a 15th time.
“We are proud and we want to win,” said Smith, who took over from Conor O’Shea in November.
“We want to play a big match in front of our fans at the Stadio Olimpico, showing everyone our real potential.”
They have a chance to do so against Scotland who were the last side to have been beaten by Italy in the Six Nations in Edinburgh back in 2015.
The last time the two teams met in the Stadio Olimpico in 2018, a late Greg Laidlaw penalty snatched a 29-27 win for the Scots.
The teams have met ten times in Rome and won five each, but Scotland have won the last three.
After a 0-42 thrashing to holders Wales in Cardiff, the Azzurri showed signs of life with three tries before falling 22-35 to France in Paris.
Scotland fell to Ireland (24-14) and then England (13-6), but unlike Italy have two bonus points.
“We’ve shown progress against France,” said Smith.
“Each game is a chance to increase our skills, we have been working together for a month to build our identity, our DNA.”
The South African has made just one change from the France game with 118-times capped lock Alessandro Zanni replacing Dean Budd, who drops to the bench.
Zanni pulled out of the match against France before kick-off due to injury.
“It’s important to me to have a core of players who know exactly what we want and who can act as reference points on the pitch,” said the former Treviso and Free State Cheetahs coach.
The most difficult task would be to build a side who could be competitive throughout the match.
“Those who start as slightly the underdog tend to get into difficulty when they are ahead in the score,” said Smith.
“I think I already have clear how the situation will be halfway through the game.
“Physicality is an aspect of the game of Italy that we are trying to develop more and more.”
“We are well aware of the threats throughout their team and how their attacking game can cause problems for any defence.”
Townsend has dropped centre Huw Jones who played in both the defeats with Chris Harris coming in as one of three changes from the England game.
Former captain Stuart McInally comes in at hooker for Fraser Brown, who drops to the bench, and Ben Toolis starts in the second row with Jonny Gray side-lined with a hand injury.
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The match will be a big test for Scotland coach Gregor Townsend after a disappointing World Cup.
“It’s a different Italy team to the one we’ve played in the past,” said Townsend.
“In their opening two games of the championship they have played with real ambition and width.
“Italy are always a very tough opponent, especially in Rome, where we know they’ll look to play with a huge amount of energy.
Flyhalf Finn Russell remains exiled after a falling out with Townsend for breaching team protocol.
Scotland and Italy have never won the Six Nations.
The Scots won the final edition of the five-team format in 1999, before the Azzurri joined in 2000.
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Players to watch:
For Italy: The Italians certainly need some standout performers, and one of them has to be Tommaso Allan. The flyhalf has the capacity to change a game, however, has been missing since the start of the tournament. At the breakdown, Jake Polledri is also one to look out for with his solid tackles while South African Abraham Steyn should in top form as he tried to full the void left by Sergio Parisse.
For Scotland: There will be loads of pressure of captain Stuart Hogg, however, if he finally manages to let go of the nerves and find a perfect balance between leading and being a fullback, he could be a legal try-scoring machine. The same goes for Sean Maitland, who hasn’t quite made his mark in this tournament.
Head to head: It will be interesting to see the second row battle between inexperienced Benetton Treviso lock Niccolo Cannone and his partner Alessandro Zanni against Scott Cummings and Ben Toolis of Scotland. While the flyhalf clash in is always an intriguing phenomenon and it certainly won’t be any different as Scotland’s Adam Hastings goes against Italy’s Tommaso Allan.
2019: Scotland won 33-20, Edinburgh
2018: Scotland won 29-27, Rome
2017: Scotland won 34-13, Kallang
2017: Scotland won 29-0, Edinburgh
2016: Scotland won 36-20, Rome
Prediction: Past results do not favour the Italians, added with their horrendous Six Nations record a win for the Franco Smith’s men seems impossible. Therefore struggling Scotland will win this by five points or less.
Italy: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Mattia Bellini, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Carlo Canna, 11 Matteo Minozzi, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Callum Braley, 8 Abraham Steyn, 7 Sebastian Negri, 6 Jake Polledri, 5 Niccolò Cannone, 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Giosuè Zilocchi, 2 Luca Bigi (captain), 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Federico Zani, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Marco Lazzaroni, 20 Dean Budd, 21 Giovanni Licata, 22 Guglielmo Palazzani, 23 Giulio Bisegni
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg (captain), 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Blair Kinghorn, 10 Adam Hastings, 9 Ali Price, 8 Magnus Bradbury, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 Jamie Ritchie, 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Rory Sutherland.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Willem Nel, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Matt Fagerson, 21 George Horne, 22 Rory Hutchinson, 23 Byron McGuigan.
Date: Saturday, February 22
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 15.15 (14.15 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be sunny with a high of 17°C, and a low of 4°C.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
Source: AFP & @rugby365com
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