Preview: Scotland v Italy
SIX NATIONS ROUND ONE: Scotland head into a Six Nations opener at home to Italy on Saturday with high spirits.
The Scots have two club teams through to the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup for the first time in history – and with their sights set on a feat, they last accomplished 92 years ago.
The Scots have won three matches in each of their last two Six Nations campaigns and have not completed three successive hat-tricks of victories in the Championship since 1927, way back in the old Five Nations days.
Having overcome Ireland, Wales and Italy at home in 2017, Vern Cotter’s last season as coach, Scotland beat England and France at Murrayfield, as well as Italy in Rome, last year to maintain their improvement under Gregor Townsend’s dynamic guidance.
Scotland have not lost a Six Nations match at Murrayfield since a 15-9 defeat by England on February 6, 2016, and have won 11 of their last 13 matches on home soil.
They have three home fixtures at Murrayfield, their Edinburgh headquarters, in this season’s Championship.
A week after Italy’s visit, Scotland host Ireland, their opening group opponents at the World Cup in Japan in September, with Wales travelling to Edinburgh on March 9.
Townsend is in no doubt that the Scots’ confidence has been lifted by Edinburgh and Glasgow reaching the last eight of Europe’s premier club tournament.
“The confidence from what we are doing at club level should put us in a good position but we need to transform that into a good performance against Italy,” said the former Scotland fly-half, who has named a strong starting XV, despite a lengthy injury list featuring key players in lock Jonny Gray, wing Sean Maitland and flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson.
“Last year we felt our game was in a good position but we did not deliver in our first game.
“We can’t afford any poor starts this time round,” added Townsend, who has given a debut to Glasgow’s Australian-born centre Sam Johnson, with uncapped flanker Gary Graham and hooker Jake Kerr on bench duty.
Fortunately for Townsend, whose team opened with a woeful 34-7 defeat by Wales in Cardiff 12 months ago, Scotland face an Italian side languishing in 15th spot in the World Rugby rankings and stuck on their longest-ever losing streak in the Six Nations.
Italy have racked up 17 successive defeats in the Championship since a 22-19 win against the Scots at Murrayfield on February 28, 2015. In their final November international last year, they were thumped 66-3 by the world champion All Blacks in Rome.
Conor O’Shea’s side will be boosted by the return from injury of Sergio Parisse. Italy’s talismanic captain and No 8 will be making a record 66th appearance in the Six Nations, moving one ahead of former Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll.
“Every year for Italy the Six Nations is a massive challenge and this is going to be maybe the toughest for us,” said Parisse, noting the prominence in the world rankings of Ireland (2), Wales (3) and England (4).
“Our mental approach is going to be crucial. In every Six Nations, the first game sets the tone for the rest of the tournament,” he added.
“We’ve got to go to Murrayfield and put down our best performance.”
Parisse has happy memories of Murrayfield victories in 2007 and 2015, Italy’s only two wins outside Rome in 19 seasons of Six Nations action.
The 35-year-old Stade Francais back-row, who is considering retiring after the World Cup, will collect his 135th cap and will make a Six Nations record of 66 appearances when he lines up in Edinburgh.
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini joins Parisse in the 100-cap club, while former England Under-20 international David Sisi makes his Italy debut in the second row.
Players to watch:
For Scotland: Australian-born Sam Johnson will make his long-awaited debut for the Scots. The midfielder, who has the luxury of having formidable player Huw Jones by his side, will be someone to look out for. The other stars to look out for are the always influential fullback Stuart Hogg and wing Tommy Seymour, both bring incredible pace and inject versatility to Scotland’s backline. Definitely, a backline that can test any noteworthy side.
For Italy: The former England Under-20 back row forward David Sisi makes his debut will be one to look out for. Legendary Sergio Parisse’s presence is always a sight to behold. The 35-year-old, who boast with 134 Test caps, returns from injury brings loads of experiences to the side. In the backline, Wasps dangerman Michele Campagnaro will pose a difficult task to halt. The Italians will be out to break that embarrassing 17 straight Six Nations defeats.
Head to head: The battle in the midfield will be very interesting. Scotland’s experience Huw Jones and debutant Sam Johnson will have the huge challenge of going up against the man tipped as the one to look out for Luca Morisi and experienced Tommaso Castello. While having play-makers Finn Russell and Italy’s Tommaso Allan orchestrating each sides’ attack from the pivot position will set the tone of the match. However, Russell does have a slight advantage in the shape of his halfback partner and captain Greig Laidlaw.
2018: Scotland won 29-27, Rome
2017: Scotland won 34-13, Singapore
2017: Scotland won 29-0, Edinburgh
2016: Scotland won 36-20, Rome
2015: Scotland won 48-7, Edinburgh
2015: Scotland won 16-12, Torino
2015: Italy won 22-19, Edinburgh
2014: Scotland won 21-20, Rome
Prediction: If the Italians would want to avoid the wooden spoon this year, they will have to produce an impressive performance and beat Scotland. After 17 consecutive Six Nations defeats the sie will be desperate and could be a huge threat for Scotland especially having won at the Murrayfield in 2007 and 2015. Having said that, Scotland will just be too good and will continue to have the upper hand over the Italians. Thus, Scotland will take this by 15 points or more.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Blair Kinghorn, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain), 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Sam Skinner, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Allan Dell.
Replacements: 16 Jake Kerr, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Gary Graham, 20 Josh Strauss, 21 Ali Price, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Chris Harris.
Italy: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Michele Campagnaro, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Braam Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 David Sisi, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Edoardo Padovani.
Date: Saturday, February 2
Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Scotland
Kick-off: 14.15 (14.15 GMT)
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
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