by Katie Field, Rugby World writer
If Italy can beat Scotland in Rome this weekend, there will doubtless be joyous scenes inside the Stadio Olimpico, but if Scotland triumph I have the feeling their players’ reaction will be more muted – more about relief than ecstasy. There might be fireworks during the match, but Scotland know they have under-performed over the last six weeks and so should not get carried away with their celebrations if they finally achieve their first win of the 2012 RBS Six Nations.
For the past few years, Scotland have promised much and failed to deliver, to the great frustration of everyone involved with their set-up. There’s been the odd glorious victory, and a number of players of undoubted talent have emerged onto the Test stage in dark blue, but they still haven’t finished above fifth in the Six Nations table since 2006.
But this year they are in serious danger of being whitewashed for the first time since 2004 and their lack of victories – on the back of their failure to get out of their pool at the World Cup – has proved to be a catalyst for change at the Scottish Rugby Union. Head coach Andy Robinson has survived calls for his head, so far, but his assistant coaches Graham Steadman and Gregor Townsend are both moving on at the end of the tournament. It is the players who have been making mistakes on the pitch, but the coaches are paying the price and the Scotland team are desperate to win this last game for them, and avoid slumping to a seventh straight loss for the first time since 1998.
Unhappy hunting ground
Scotland will have to produce a performance streets ahead of last weekend’s effort in Dublin, where they lost 32-14, if they are to win in Rome. They haven’t beaten Italy there since 2006, when they squeaked home 13-10. Italy come into this match on the back of two heavy losses, 24-3 to Wales last weekend and 42-10 to Ireland in the game before, but both those were away from home and the Italians have always been tough to defeat in Rome – as England discovered when they managed to edge out the hosts 19-15 last month.
Italy have a new coach this season, Jaques Brunel, and as he seeks his first win he has made six changes to the squad which lost in Cardiff. Happily for Italy, Leicester Tigers prop Martin Castrogiovanni has recovered from a fractured rib he suffered last month and is restored to the starting line-up, although they had to replace hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini with Fabio Ongaro less than 24 hours before kick-off, thanks to a shoulder injury. Former Gloucester lock Marco Bortolami comes in for Cornelius Van Zyl to earn his 93rd cap and the changes in the backs see Giovambattista Venditti replacing Luke McLean on the right wing while Tommaso Benvenuti starts at centre.
Scotland have made just one change to the side which floundered in Dublin, with Nick De Luca returning from injury at outside-centre, allowing Max Evans to switch to the wing in place of Lee Jones, who was hospitalised with concussion following the Ireland game.
For all the doom and gloom, Scotland have played some good rugby during this tournament. David Denton has been a great find in the back row, where Ross Rennie has also starred, Stuart Hogg has the fearlessness of youth and Greig Laidlaw has got the back line moving a bit more fluently. As always against Italy, the scrum needs to be good and Richie Gray and co need a massive game in the lineout.
Scotland must start well, otherwise the Italian fans will give their side the momentum they need to get on top and the Wooden Spoon wobbles will set in for the visitors. Scotland should have enough class to win, but half the battle will be about mental strength and coolness under pressure. I am going for a Scotland win by eight points, but I am expecting a nail-biter.
ITALY: Andrea Masi; Giovambattista Venditti, Tommaso Benvenuti, Gonzalo Canale, Mirco Bergamasco; Kris Burton, Edoardo Gori; Andrea Lo Cicero, Fabio Ongaro, Martin Castrogiovanni, Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Bortolami, Alessandro Zanni, Robert Barbieri, Sergio Parisse (capt). Reps: Tommaso D’Apice, Lorenzo Cittadini, Joshua Furno, Simone Favaro, Manoa Vosawai, Tobias Botes, Giulio Toniolatti, Michele Rizzo, Alberto Sgarbi.
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg; Max Evans, Nick De Luca, Graeme Morrison, Sean Lamont; Greig Laidlaw, Mike Blair; Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford (capt), Geoff Cross, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, John Barclay, Ross Rennie, David Denton. Reps: Scott Lawson, Euan Murray, Alastair Kellock, Richie Vernon, Chris Cusiter, Ruaridh Jackson, Jack Cuthbert.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).