Even amidst the longest losing streak in the Six Nations’ 137-year history, Italy fans remain full of hope.
More than 55,000 are expected at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, hoping to see Italy’s first win in five years.
Because Scotland is in town.
Scotland was the last team Italy beat in the championship, 24 defeats ago. Scotland has been Italy’s most common victim since it joined the Six Nations in 2000 – seven times. Wales and France are next, with two wins against each.
Italy vs. Scotland has often determined the bearer of the wooden spoon, and this Saturday’s match appears no different.
Both teams have lost their first two matches, but Italy has one advantage. It is home.
At home, Italy seems to have 16 players on the field. It hasn’t won a championship match at home in seven years, but it plays with a lot more inspiration in front of its home fans. Last year, visitors Wales, Ireland, and France were all given scares.
“Italy are always a very tough opponent, especially in Rome, where we know they’ll look to play with a huge amount of energy,” Scotland coach Gregor Townsend says.
“It’s a different Italy team to the one we’ve played in the past. In their opening two games of the championship they have played with real ambition and width. They’ve also selected athletic ballplayers who suit this strategy and are comfortable playing at a high tempo.”
Despite his own team’s losses to Ireland and England, Townsend still hasn’t summoned chief playmaker Finn Russell, who quit the squad before the championship for breaching team protocol. After the England loss he watched from Paris nearly two weeks ago, Russell claimed he has no relationship with Townsend, who also used to be his club coach.
Townsend hit back by saying Russell would be welcomed back in the squad when he committed to being a team player. Townsend says they haven’t talked since the outbursts.
In the meantime, he’s dropped center Huw Jones for Chris Harris, and decided to start former captain Stuart McInally at hooker for Fraser Brown.
Interim Italy coach Franco Smith has been more bold in picking the same starting lineup that lost to France 35-22 in Paris. That could mean a first home appearance for Zebre loosehead prop Danilo Fischetti.
“Ever since I was a child I dreamt about playing with the Italy shirt in Rome, cheered on by my family and by my friends,” Fischetti says. “When I was in the academy and I was pitchside at the Olimpico to give the ball back to the Italy players … that was already a huge deal for me as I watched those Azzurri players with admiration, dreaming of one day being able to be on that field.”
Italy has so far lost to Wales 42-0 and to France. The latter performance was an improvement, but that hasn’t salved Italy’s sore pride.
“The result shows that what has been done is still not enough,” Italy scrumhalf Guglielmo Palazzani says. “We want to redeem ourselves on Saturday at home to Scotland, hunting down a win that we haven’t got in the Six Nations for a long time.
“We know that the home teams in this tournament are favorites also thanks to the help of the fans. So we hope that on Saturday there will be a lot of people cheering us on, and with their help and with hard work we hope we can get a good win.”
Italy: Jayden Hayward, Mattia Bellini, Luca Morsi, Carlo Canna, Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Allan, Callum Braley; Braam Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Jake Polledri, Niccolò Cannone, Alessandro Zanni, Giosuè Zilochhi, Luca Bigi (captain), Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Federico Zani, Danilo Fischetti, Marco Riccioni, Marco Lazzaroni, Dean Budd, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Giulio Bisegni.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (captain), Sean Maitland, Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Scott Cummings, Ben Toolis, Zander Fagerson, Stuart McInally, Rory Sutherland. Reserves: Fraser Brown, Allan Dell, Willem Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Matt Fagerson, George Horne, Rory Hutchinson, Byron McGuigan
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports