All the team news, battlegrounds and TV details you need for the Six Nations match between Italy and Scotland in Rome – the clash that kicks off Super Saturday
Six Nations Italy v Scotland Preview
Italy and Scotland, the bottom two in the Six Nations table, are the lunchtime hors d’oeuvre on Super Saturday. Each side goes into the Stadio Olimpico clash with plenty to play for.
The Azzurri are desperate to avoid an all-team, all-time record-equalling 17th straight championship defeat, while the Scots are looking to quash talk that they’re a soft touch away from Edinburgh. They have lost 17 of their last 19 away games in the Six Nations, with the Rome successes of 2014 and 2016 their only solace.
Many a time this fixture has decided which of the two gets the wooden spoon, but Scottish ambitions are now of a different order. Victory this weekend, coupled with a predicted win for Ireland at Twickenham, should see Scotland finish above England for only the second time since Italy joined the tournament in 2000.
The only previous occasion that happened was in 2006, when Scotland’s results – home wins over France and England, plus defeats in Cardiff and Dublin – echoed their form of this year.
Twelve years ago, it took a late penalty by Chris Paterson to nick it 13-10 for the Scots. A similar outcome this time would leave coach Gregor Townsend disappointed, because he knows better than anyone just how much potential lies in his side.
France have come closest to beating Ireland but no team has cut the new champions open quite like Scotland, whose profligacy has hurt them badly on the road.
Rugby World rated Stuart Hogg as the world’s sixth-best player when we recently produced our Top 100. The more you watch him, you more you believe what an injustice that is.
From a wicked spiral kick to brilliant manipulation of a defence, the Scotland full-back has got everything. But even he was guilty of poor execution in Dublin.
Related: Ireland v Scotland Talking Points
“We’ve possibly left 21 to 28 points out there at the weekend and gifted them 14 potentially,” said Hogg this week.
“These things happen and the boys are aware that, individually, they’ve made a mistake. But now it’s about the chance to learn and improve and hopefully if we’re in that situation again then we don’t make the same mistake.”
Tooth and nail
If the passes stick, then Italy face yet another drubbing. Their average losing margin in this championship is 27 points and captain Sergio Parisse, the greatest player in their history, is poised to lose a Test for the 100th time. Brian Moore praised the No 8’s “remarkable mental fortitude” when commentating on the defeat by Wales last Sunday.
Related: Wales v Italy Talking Points
“We’re going to fight tooth and nail,” said Italy coach Conor O’Shea. “We’re doing everything that’s right for the future of this country. We’re going to get it right.”
Although results don’t suggest it, O’Shea is doing a fantastic job and there are glimmers of what could be. The much-lauded Matteo Minozzi is not the only promising young back in their ranks and up front, powerful ball-carrier Sebastian Negri has a new ally in another Hartpury College product, Jake Polledri.
Polledri, 22, the son of Bristol legend Peter, played for Italy U20 in the 2014 Junior World Cup, but it was only his outstanding form last season for Hartpury in National One that earned him a contract at Gloucester. It’s a heady rise and he will be tested to the limit.
Ringing the changes
Polledri is the only change to Italy’s XV, with Tommaso Castello having recovered from the head knock he suffered when missing a tackle on Hadleigh Parkes.
In contrast, Scotland have changed a third of their team. In the back-line, Nick Grigg replaces Pete Horne at centre and wing Tommy Seymour returns from a back problem in place of Blair Kinghorn.
In the pack, hooker Fraser Brown, prop WP Nel and lock Tim Swinson come in, with Stuart McInally – one of Scotland’s best performers this year – making do with a bench role after playing a full 80 minutes in the games against France and England.
Richie Gray and Zander Fagerson, who have been absent through injury, are also among the replacements in Rome, while No 8 Ryan Wilson is fit to start following his head injury against Ireland.
Italy were Townsend’s opponents in his first match in charge last summer, a 34-13 victory in Singapore. He said: “We’ve been pleased with how the players have responded to last week’s disappointment, with the energy they have brought to training and a determination to improve our performance in our final match.
“Playing Italy will be a very tough game but we’re ready for the challenge and have an experienced group of players working hard to finish our campaign with a positive performance and result.”
The coach also took time to explain the thinking behind Grigg’s promotion at the expense of his Glasgow team-mate Horne, Townsend telling The Herald: “It’s mostly down to the playing style of Italy and how they defend. They defend differently.
“They might change it now that I’m talking about it so much, but they are a bit more wide spaced, so we’ve got to make sure we punch holes in that defence. Nick has shown off the bench that he carries the ball really well. We believe that will be better for us this week.”
Emptying the tank
Against Wales, Italy addressed one of their fundamental failings: their inability to retain the ball. But they have missed more than 100 tackles in the championship, with their success rate in Cardiff down to just over 80%.
In a side that has seen little rotation over the past six weeks, and has had a day less to recover because of their Sunday date in Wales, can their players summon a final 80 minutes of all-out defensive grunt?
Many neutrals will be hoping they can end the Six Nations on a high note, but it’s hard to see how it will happen. There’s a momentum about Scotland that doesn’t look like disappearing any time soon, and they will not deviate from the high-tempo, running game that has brought so many thrills. They have been the best team to watch in this championship.
“If we beat Italy, it would be the first time we’ve managed three wins in the championship in back-to-back seasons,” says Scotland captain John Barclay. “It’s a driving force and it would represent consolidation and progress.”
It’s a force that should prevail. Expect Italy to stay in the contest for a while but ultimately to end the tournament as they began it – reflecting on an emphatic loss and wondering whether there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Italy Matteo Minozzi; Tommaso Benvenuti, Giulio Bisegni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini; Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd, Sebastian Negri, Jake Polledri, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements Oliviero Fabiani, Nicola Quaglio, Tiziani Pasquali, Abraham Steyn, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward.
Scotland Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Nic Grigg, Sean Maitland; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw; Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown, WP Nel, Jonny Gray, Tim Swinson, John Barclay (capt), Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.
Replacements Stuart McInally, Jamie Bhatti, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, David Denton, Ali Price, Pete Horne, Blair Kinghorn.
Italy v Scotland, Saturday 17 March, 12.30pm, Stadio Olimpico.
Pascal Gauzere takes charge of his sixth Six Nations match, and the previous five have all involved either Scotland or Italy. That includes last year’s meeting at Murrayfield, when Gauzere penalised Scotland heavily but they still won 29-0 in Vern Cotter’s farewell game.
The TV Details
The game is live on ITV, BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 5 live extra.