Gregor Townsend's new journey starts in the Lion City as Italy and Scotland do battle in a fixture set to pave the way for other Tier One nations in South-East Asia
You don’t need an excuse to visit Singapore but here’s a great one anyway – the historic Italy v Scotland Test match that takes place there on Saturday 10 June.
The European nations will contest the first Tier One International to be played in the Lion City and their meeting represents a significant landmark for the South-East Asian country.
Talks to stage a southern v northern hemisphere Test in Singapore later this year are already underway and there’s little doubt that Italy and Scotland will be the first of many top-flight international sides to do battle in the magnificent three-year-old National Stadium, with its world-beating retractable dome.
The match has special meaning for Scotland, marking as it does the start of Gregor Townsend’s reign as national coach. And 20 years after starring for the victorious Lions in South Africa, the coach will have almost a full set of players to choose from because only three Scots have made this year’s Lions party.
Injuries mean Richie Gray and Sean Maitland will also be absent but the core of the squad that won three of their five Six Nations matches will be on duty, including Finn Russell, Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson – three men many felt deserved to be wearing Lions’ red in New Zealand.
Tighthead WP Nel, who would surely have been a Lion barring a season-long neck injury, and No 8 Josh Strauss, recovered from a kidney injury, also feature in a squad led by John Barclay.
“It’s exciting to be able to play in a unique stadium and the fact that it’ll be Scotland’s first International there will make for a great occasion,” says Townsend.
“I’ve not been to Singapore before but I know a number of players are looking forward to not just the stadium but the island as a whole, having heard so many good things about it.
“Playing Italy in Singapore will be a very different prospect from taking them on in Edinburgh or Rome, and it will be a challenge for both teams to adapt to the new surroundings.
“Italy are a team we know well and we can expect it to be a very competitive match. It will provide us with the ideal opportunity to get our game into place on the way to playing Australia and Fiji as part of our summer tour.”
Conor O’Shea’s Italy had a torrid Six Nations but they won Tests in USA and Canada last June and famously downed the Springboks in November. They have beaten Scotland eight times in 27 meetings, most recently at Murrayfield in 2015, and will not be fazed by facing the world’s fifth-best team, according to the current world rankings.
O’Shea recently likened the Azzurri to Glasgow Warriors, the team Townsend coached to the Guinness Pro12 title before taking the Scotland reins.
“Twenty years ago, Glasgow were losing by 80 points, ten years ago one Scottish franchise went bust and Glasgow and Edinburgh were going nowhere,” he told ESPN. “But come 2017, both Glasgow and Edinburgh were into European quarter-finals and Scotland are looking better. It takes time.”
As last year, O’Shea has chosen to rest veteran players like Sergio Parisse for a tour that also includes Tests in Fiji and Australia in the following fortnight. New Zealand referee Paul Williams will take charge of both the Singapore match and the one in Suva on 17 June.
“We can’t wait to take the field in Singapore, which is a new and thrilling challenge for Italy in the Test arena,” said O’Shea of what is a designated home fixture for the Azzurri. “There is a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes to prepare this group for the challenges ahead. We are also making changes within our system which we feel will benefit Italian rugby both in the short and long term, but no one is under any illusions about the task ahead.
“The goal for this group of players on tour is to ensure we execute and start taking the opportunities that we have undoubtedly had. Once we do that, and play with the intensity and focus that we aspire to, we will become the team that we and our supporters desire.”
The clash is part of a wonderful array of Test-match action in June. Ireland are also in Asia as they play a two-Test series against Japan, while there are RWC 2019 qualifiers in the Americas and Oceania. In fact, Pacific Island teams play six Tier One Tests. Fiji take on the Wallabies as well as Scotland and Italy, Samoa tackle Wales and New Zealand, and Tonga also get a crack at the Welsh.
“There has been a massive step up in international competition since the last Rugby World Cup,” says World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, “and this Test window will allow for some very interesting matches.”
Singapore will be at the heart of that and those fans flying in to see the Italy-Scotland match will be keen to make the most of a city that Lonely Planet described as one of the world’s hot-list destinations.
Few visitors leave without seeing the award-winning, 101-hectare Gardens by the Bay that features space-age bio-domes, high-tech Supertrees and a Cloud Forest complete with a waterfall. A Skyway connects two of the Supertrees, giving breathtaking views of the gardens, city and South China City.
Indulgence of a different kind will be another priority as Singapore’s street food is the pride of the city. Head to the Amoy Food Centre to find local fare at stalls such as A Noodle Story, Famous Crispy Curry Puff and Hong Kee Beef Noodle and Hoo Kee Rice Dumpling.
Nearby is the Maxwell Food Centre with its celebrated Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice.
You can find out more about the sights of Singapore here, but as Scotland and Italy prepare for their third encounter on neutral soil – Scotland won 18-16 in Saint Etienne (2007) and 30-29 in Pretoria (2013) – the last word goes to Low Teo Ping, chairman of Rugby Singapore.
“We have been hosting Super Rugby matches and the HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens, so we are well prepared to organise an event of this stature,” he says.
“This is a precursor of many more world-class matches to come. As we go into 2019, when Japan hosts the 2019 Rugby World Cup, there will certainly be more teams wanting to come and play here. We already have excellent sporting infrastructure in the form of the National Stadium in the Sports Hub, and once international teams and players start coming here to play, Singapore gets more recognition as a hub for rugby in Asia.”
For tickets to the historic Italy v Scotland match, click here.