Scotland vs Italy

Scotland vs Italy: In the Six Nations, even worse.Scotland vs Italy has lost its last 17 tests, 10 of them under O’Shea. If, as everyone predicts, Italy loses again on Saturday to Scotland at Italy va Scotland Murrayfield, that’ll be No. 18, and the RBS Six Nations championship’s new standard of despair. Italy will leave behind the France team of 1911-20.

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Like tortured veterans retelling the horrors of conflict, delve into the recesses of a Scottish rugby supporter’s mind and there will lurk deep reservoirs of sorrow inflicted by Italian tormentors.No Scot wants or needs to relive these harrowing days but here are the cliff-notes.

In 2000, Scotland were reigning Five Nations champions. Italy, un-fancied tournament greenhorns expected to take their spankings and be bloody well grateful for their seat at the top table. Of course, their grinning little provocateur Diego Dominguez and his band of warriors had other ideas, and duly walloped their illustrious guests 34-20.

There was an insipid Rome loss in 2004, in the midst of Scotland’s most depressing championship in a generation. The hideous, stomach-churning show of self-harm in 2007 when Scotland quite literally threw away three tries in six minutes, setting Italy on their merry way to a first away win in championship history.

Andrea Marcato’s howitzer drop-goal followed in 2008. Then unfathomable losses in 2010 and 2012 and, most recently, an astonishing collapse in Edinburgh four years ago.With good reason, Italy have long regarded Scotland as the juiciest of targets, the most fertile ground for a Six Nations triumph.

Dan Parks, the former Scotland fly-half who played Italy seven times, says it best when recounting one Roman conquering – in truth, he might be speaking about any of those five defeats on Italian soil.“Somehow we managed to lose, which is what we did in Rome quite regularly. I don’t know why, but we did. If you don’t get away from them, they stick with you. If you get away, you’re OK, but if you don’t, you’re screwed. It’s really tough.”

Scotland didn’t get away from Italy last year. In fact, they had to do a hell of a lot of work just to keep pace with Conor O’Shea’s barnstormers. Greig Laidlaw got them there – just – but it’s a game most in the Scottish camp recognise should have been lost.

The defeat was a gut-punch for Italy, a blow cruellest and most keenly felt by their totem and captain, the great Sergio Parisse. It would seem an insult not to preface Parisse’s name with some acknowledgement of his incalculable contribution to rugby, particularly rugby in Italy, but on that day last year, he suffered his 100th loss in the colours of his country. Seldom can a player of such awesome brilliance be on the receiving end of so brutal a statistic.

Parisse has 134 caps – a mountainous haul even in the modern era – but only 34 victories. That day in Rome was his most recent outing. Saturday will mark his 66th Six Nations Test match, nudging him to the summit of the appearance standings, beyond another marvel of the game, Brian O’Driscoll.

Video Spacer You could write enough pages to fill a library when you sit down to analyse Parisse’s incredible skill-set and rousing leadership, but his legacy will be the monumental graft he and O’Shea have invested in hauling Italian rugby from its anarchic state into the professional realm.

At 35, this is likely Murrayfield’s last chance to watch the colossus go to work. We should all rejoice to have been rugby fans in the days of Sergio.

Parisse will be there – of course he will – but O’Shea has been shorn of some of his most impressive firepower from last season. Matteo Minozzi, the electric full-back who scored four tries in 2018, is out. So is back-row Jake Polledri, who bludgeoned and galloped through the Scottish defence at will, and winger Mattia Bellini, who played in every minute of last year’s championship.

Still, for the first time in an age, Italy have a wave of invigorating young talent and in Benetton, a professional team threatening to do something in the Pro14. Kieran Crowley’s team are second in Conference B with seven wins in 14, sitting above Edinburgh, Scarlets and Ulster.

O’Shea is confident Italy are getting to a place where their credibility in the championship can no longer be questioned, where consistently good performances yield wins, and wins are no longer shocking. For now, though, their record is undeniably grim.

That euphoric afternoon in the Edinburgh drizzle back in 2015 was their last championship victory. Seventeen defeats in a row and only one win over Scotland in their past 10 matches.

The record book is hardly kind to the Scots either. In eighteen tournaments, they have won their opening game twice – no coincidence that in both 2006 and 2017, they finished in their best-ever placing of third.

Gregor Townsend equalled that standing in his first Six Nations at the helm a year ago. The 2019 schedule has been about as kind to the Scots as it reasonably can, in a tournament where three of the world’s top four-ranked sides prowl.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will hand a Test debut to Glasgow centre Sam Johnson when his side open their Guinness Six Nations campaign at home to Italy on Saturday.

Newcastle flanker Gary Graham – previously called up by England coach Eddie Jones – and Leicester hooker Jake Kerr could also win their first caps if they appear off the bench.

Edinburgh full-back Blair Kinghorn, meanwhile, will start on the left wing as the Dark Blues welcome the Azzurri to Murrayfield.

With Edinburgh resurgent under Richard Cockerill this season, Townsend has chosen to go with the capital outfit’s tight five. Hooker Stuart McInally will squeeze in between props Allan Dell and WP Nel, with Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist forming the second row.

Exeter lock Sam Skinner will slot into the back-row after showing he can fill in at flanker during his impressive introduction to the national team set-up during the autumn, with Ryan Wilson and Jamie Ritchie completing the back-row.Skipper Greig Laidlaw will partner Racing 92 star Finn Russell in the half-backs, while Australia-born Johnson – who qualifies on residency grounds after signing for Glasgow in 2015 – lines-up alongside Huw Jones in midfield.

Stuart Hogg will again provide an attacking threat from full-back as he slots in beside Kinghorn and Tommy Seymour in the back three.

Townsend said: “It’s a privilege to be involved in the Guinness Six Nations, a tournament that has grown in quality over the past few seasons. You can sense the excitement throughout the rugby world on the eve of this year’s Championship and we’re looking forward to starting our campaign at BT Murrayfield.

“Italy have made life tough for Scotland in every Test match we’ve played. I remember that as a player, as a supporter and as a coach – and they were better than us in most of last season’s contest in Rome. They played with pace, were physical and we had to play really, really well in the final quarter to win.

“That performance and also the recent displays of Benetton Treviso are sharp reminders for our players that this will be a difficult fixture.

“Our challenge is to win the physical battle, which is a strength of Italian rugby. We will also have to bring energy and accuracy in order to get our campaign off to a winning start.”

Italy make six changes to the side that lost to New Zealand 66-3 last November with Sergio Parise back in the starting line-up to lead what is expected to be his final Six Nations campaign. The 35-year-old will win his 135th cap for Italy, and leads a pack that will see Leonardo Ghiraldini win his 100th Test cap and also has uncapped lock David Sisi in the second row and Abraham Steyn moving from No 8 to openside flanker, making way for Parisse and covering for the injured Gloucester back-row Jake Polledri.

Parisse will surpass Brian O’Driscoll’s record of 65 Six Nations appearances when he takes to the field at Murrayfield.

In the backs, Tito Tebaldo and Scotland Under-20 international Tommaso Allan continue at half-back, with Exeter’s Michele Campagnaro moving from centre to wing to allow Luca Morisi to start in the No 13 shirt. The final change to the side sees Angelo Esposito start on the right wing.

Scotland: (15-9) Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw; (1-8) Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, WP Nel; Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist; Sam Skinner, Jamie Ritchie, Ryan Wilson.

Replacements: (16-23) Jake Kerr, Jamie Bhati, Simon Berghan, Gary Graham, Josh Strauss, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Chris Harris.

Italy: (15-9) Jayden Hayward; Angelo Esposito, Luca Morisi, Tommaso Castello, Michele Campagnaro; Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; (1-8) Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari; David Sisi, Dean Budd; Sebastian Negri, Abraham Steyn, Sergio Parisse.

Replacements: (16-23) Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Jummy Tuivaiti, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Edoardo Padovani.

Starting with two home games, the first against the weakest side in the championship, is especially welcome since Scotland haven’t won in Ireland since 2010, in Wales since 2002, or France and England since 1999 and 1983. Italy, then Grand Slam behemoths Ireland visit Murrayfield in the opening two weeks. If Scotland are to match or better third place, the Azzurri must be subdued.

Townsend loves to launch a curveball when the time comes for team selection but his line-up for the opening weekend bears no great surprises.

Sam Johnson, the Glasgow centre, gets his long-awaited debut after injury denied him a cap in the autumn. Johnson is a wonderful tale, a Queenslander who rocked up in Scotland three-and-a-half years ago looking to play some rugby and stave off what he thought was an inevitable return “to the real world”. He fancied he’d be an electrician or some other tradesman back in Brisbane by now with the rest of his mates. Instead, he’s about to become an international.

Johnson arrived a little on the pudgy side, tentative and virtually silent in his early days at Scotstoun. His qualities as a player were obvious – scything line-breaks, sumptuous hands and fearsome tackling. Townsend saw it and so did his successor, Dave Rennie. With his residency period complete, he’s in the squad and has a tantalising chance to make the 12 jersey his own while so many of his rivals occupy the treatment table.

Moreover, it is in Scotland where Johnson has become a man and learned how to be a professional, where he has met “a beautiful Scottish girl” and where his heart now lies. Those who peddle vacuous statistics about “foreign-born players” ought to spend a little time in his company.

Outside Johnson, Sean Maitland’s nous and defensive savvy will be missed but the rangy Blair Kinghorn offers speed, line breaks and excellent off-loading. His Edinburgh colleague Darcy Graham is desperately unlucky not to feature after a scintillating period with his club.

Edinburgh’s snarling tight-five will bring ballast and a formidable set-piece, although of two of the club’s most effective pack members, Viliame Mata and Blair Schoeman, are not Scottish. A crying shame in particular that “Big Bill” does not have a Scottish granny.

Jonny Gray is injured but even if he were fit, he’d have had an almighty job displacing Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist from the boiler house. Sam Skinner will be a valuable asset on the blind-side flank, even if John Barclay and Hamish Watson leave sizeable holes in the back-row.

There are some high-profile absentees, for sure, but if Scotland are serious about a title challenge, they have to develop the sort of depth that allows for near-seamless rotation. They have to handle being favourites too, as they will be on Saturday, and they absolutely have to do better on their travels.

The Scots want to be gazing upwards at the summit and licking their lips at the heavyweights blocking their path, not glancing behind them at the Italian train doing its utmost to run them down.

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