Italy v Scotland: Six Nations must-win for Gregor Townsend's side
|Guinness Six Nations: Italy v Scotland|
|Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome Date: Saturday, 22 February Kick-off: 14:15 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra & BBC Radio Scotland; text commentary online; video highlights on BBC Sport website and app.|
Two years ago in Rome, John Barclay stopped for a chat on his way back from the post-match media conference following Scotland's stressful two-point win at Stadio Olimpico.
Still in his gear, Barclay had taken a dunt to the face and had a ridiculously swollen hand, along with what could only be described as a leg wound that a rabid dog would have been proud of inflicting. The captain was in a pretty ragged state, but the thing was that he hardly noticed - or cared. Scotland had played poorly but they'd escaped with a late, late victory and nothing else mattered to him in that moment.
The sight of Barclay's battered body was the history of Scotland versus Italy in Rome in microcosm. Scottish defeats in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012. A 78th-minute winning penalty in 2006, a 79th-minute winning drop goal in 2014, a 78th-minute winning penalty in 2018. Seven of the 10 games in Rome have been absolute battles to the last whistle.
Any kind of Six Nations win is a precious commodity for Scotland, especially a Six Nations win away from home. That's a pretty rare beast. Barclay has probably forgotten all of this, but his reaction that day to the chat about how iffy Scotland's performance had been was to remind his audience how he couldn't give two flips - or a word to the effect - that they'd been fortunate. Winning is everything.
'History tells us it will be tight and tense'
Scotland are now back in that territory. On Saturday in Rome, they have to win. No nuance can be put on defeat. No top spin. No complaints about bad calls or bad luck. No words that will ease the sense of desperation and anger.
The SRU would rather gouge out their own eyes than contemplate replacing Gregor Townsend, but if they lose this game then the flak is not just going to hit the team and the coach in great and unstoppable waves but also the man, Mark Dodson, who appointed the coach.
If Townsend is to kick on to France at home, Wales away and then South Africa and New Zealand away in the summer he's going to have to get a win in the bank and Rome is his best chance. If they win with tries and flair and a fair degree of comfort, then great. All of those things are needed now. But history tells us that it will probably be tight and tense.
Before that Barclay game in 2018, Italy had already lost to Wales by 24 points, to France by 17, to Ireland by 47 and to England by 31, but they saved their best for the Scots. The hard-bitten visitors will know that despite Italy shipping 10 tries and 77 points in their opening two losses to Wales and France in this championship - their 23rd and 24th consecutive losses in the Six Nations - they're probably shaping up for a big one this weekend.
The reassuring thing for Scotland is that, after two try-less performances against Ireland and England, they're now going up against a defence that is nowhere near as organised, as canny and as brutally hard as those they've already faced. There's been a huge amount of talk about the predictable state of Scotland's attack - all grunt and little guile on the five-metre line - but had Hogg not dropped the ball against Ireland then would such a narrative have taken hold? It would have levelled the try count on the day at 1-1.
Not scoring in biblical conditions against England at Murrayfield was not a disgrace, not when England only scored once themselves, driving over from close-range with all the heft they could muster.
There's been much to like about a lot of Scotland's attack shape and a continuation in Rome should see some tries. Italy's defence can and probably will be taken to the cleaners at times. That's no guarantee of victory, though. Scotland scored four tries two years ago and still had their supporters hyperventilating into paper bags at the end.
The rest of what Italy have got is half-decent. They have an attack that is offloading more and wants to go wider earlier, an attack that scored three tries in Paris. Scotland haven't scored three times on French soil in their last six attempts.
Italy have a terrific ball-carrying back-row, a scrum that gave Wales and France problems, effective-enough operators on the floor (Scotland have lost 10 balls at the breakdown in two games), and a lineout that's held its own (as opposed to Scotland's, which has been picked off, albeit by two outstanding defensive lineouts and a horrible swirling storm).
This is their first home game of the championship and they're relishing it. The ingredients are there for another scary afternoon for Scotland, but this is a game they should be winning. It's the one match in the championship where the fans are correct to demand victory.
'Now the must-win game, the non-negotiable'
Where are Townsend's boys at after two games? It depends on what your expectations were in the first place. Did anybody seriously expect Scotland to win in Dublin, a place where they haven't won in a decade? Doubtful. It would be right to expect a performance that lasted 80 minutes, a proper contest that went to the wire - and that's what they delivered. Scotland roughed-up Ireland, blew a golden chance of a try, conceded just one try, and lost by seven points.
Given their recent history against Ireland, that was a heartening effort. Taking comfort in defeat might stick in the craw, but it's also based in reality. Ireland won the previous three meetings by 24 points, nine points and 20 points. They're loaded with Grand Slam and European Cup winners. To stay in the game and to lose by a score was not a bad result given Scotland's abominable history in the Six Nations. It represented progress from the muck they dished up in Yokohama in the World Cup.
They hosted England in a monsoon. Again, if there was an expectation of victory that day then you have to wonder where it came from. Not from the real world. A grim battle ensued and it was decided by a clever George Ford grubber that put Hogg in the horrors. Another tight game, another single-score loss against a team that few would have expected Scotland to beat.
You couldn't call it a good result but nor could you call it an especially bad one. Some will say that Scotland must win two games in the Six Nations or else it's a failure. No. Scotland must win one game (Italy) and must be competitive in the other four. That's the base line. That's the realistic expectation based on the talent in this team and the ability of the teams they go up against.
Is that setting the bar too low? Not when you examine Scotland's desperate failure over 20 years. They've been truly competitive in all five games only two or three times since 2000. Obviously, they didn't win all five, but at least they were in the fight for the full 80. Two or three times in 20 years is a pitiful return, but that's Scotland's harsh truth.
They've been competitive in their first two this time around and now comes the must-win game. The non-negotiable. Townsend has brought in Ben Toolis for the injured Jonny Gray, has dumped a very dangerous if inconsistent attacker Huw Jones from the 23 while promoting the physicality of Chris Harris, and has dropped Fraser Brown in place of Stuart McInally.
The 23 Scots who take the field better have a rage for victory in Rome because their counterparts are coming for them. Italian nostrils are twitching at the scent of an upset. If there's to be a future for Townsend and his team then the time has come to prove it.