Six Nations 2023: The most important Scotland v Italy game ever? Victory crucial for Gregor Townsend

    Scotland's Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg
    Key duo Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg will be missing for Scotland on Saturday
    Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh Date: Saturday, 18 March Kick-off: 12:30 GMT
    Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and online from 12:00 GMT; listen on BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra and BBC Radio Scotland Extra; text commentary on BBC Sport website and app.

    The breakneck speed of a Six Nations doesn’t allow space for self-flagellation. As much as Scotland could beat themselves up over Sunday’s second-half performance against Ireland, there’s just no time. Another week, another game. A big one.

    There’s no title on the line for Scotland against Italy on Saturday, but this is no dead rubber. If they win it with a bonus point then they all but guarantee themselves third place in the table for only the second time in a decade.

    Finishing as the best of the rest would surely settle any lingering doubts Scottish Rugby may have about renewing Gregor Townsend’s contract as head coach beyond the World Cup, presuming he still wants it renewed.

    A five-pointer against Italy would kick Scotland into the World Cup build-up in decent heart. They’ve played some thrilling rugby in victory and defeat in this championship.

    The brilliance of Duhan van der Merwe’s scores against England, the joy of Finn Russell’s second-half performance against Wales, the excellence they showed when 19-0 down in Paris to outscore France 21-6 in the next hour.

    Ireland exposed Scotland’s naivety in a desperately disappointing second half at Murrayfield, but if they learn the lessons then there’s a lot to be hopeful about. If they beat Italy.

    The flipside is gruesome. To win their first two games in the championship and then lose the next three would be mind-alteringly awful.

    Could a defeat on Saturday have implications for Townsend staying on beyond the World Cup? If the deal hasn’t already been agreed on the quiet then possibly – because the flak would fly left, right and centre.

    The feelgood after the opening fortnight? Gone. The atmosphere leading into the World Cup? Funereal. The confidence of the players? Shot to bits.

    So you can look at Saturday as an unimportant Test and, in the context of the title, then it obviously is. But there’s a huge amount riding on this.

    There’s more on the line in this Italy game than many Italy games that have gone before. The element of danger looms larger than it has done since 2015 – the last time the Azzurri beat the Scots.

    There have been 11 Scotland wins in a row since then, but this time around there’s no Russell to provide the defence-splitting, backline-launching magic, no Stuart Hogg and his big boot, no Richie Gray and the way he runs a lineout.

    Italy's Ange Capuozzo (right)
    Italy are without impressive back Ange Capuozzo (right) through injury

    Look what happened to Scotland out of touch when Gray went off against Ireland. Would Josh van der Flier have thrown successfully to the front five times in a row had Gray been on the pitch? Highly doubtful.

    That’s a truckload of experience, class and nous absent. Blair Kinghorn is at 10 when his best performances off the bench have been at 15. He’s been excellent in that position. There’s still little evidence that Kinghorn is a Test 10, so there’s some concern there.

    Ollie Smith at 15 and Ben Healy, who will make his debut off the bench, give a different look to Townsend’s 23.

    The head coach has taken an axe to his front-row replacements. Jamie Bhatti, Fraser Brown and Simon Berghan all pay the price for ineffective appearances on Sunday and in come Rory Sutherland, Ewan Ashman and WP Nel.

    You could argue that some, or all, of them should have been in the 23 for Ireland.

    Italy have lost four from four, but they had France in serious trouble right until the end and only lost by four points.

    They were sticky against Ireland with only a score separating the sides with 10 minutes left. They lost comprehensively enough in the end against Wales last weekend, but the amount of chances they created and didn’t execute was astonishing.

    Italy made 11 clean breaks in that match, which is more than any side has made in the championship this season. Even without the brilliant Ange Capuozzo, who’s sadly injured, they’re going to take a lot of beating.

    The glamour game of the day is in Dublin, where Ireland are looking to win a Grand Slam and where England are hoping to leave town with a semblance of pride. Murrayfield won’t have the colour, noise or intensity of the Aviva, but in the grand scheme, it still matters. Big-time.


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