Like tortured veterans retelling the horrors of conflict, delve into the recesses of a Scottish rugby supporter’s mind and there will lurk deep reservoirs of sorrow inflicted by Italian tormentors.
No Scot wants or needs to relive these harrowing days but here are the cliff-notes.
In 2000, Scotland were reigning Five Nations champions. Italy, un-fancied tournament greenhorns expected to take their spankings and be bloody well grateful for their seat at the top table. Of course, their grinning little provocateur Diego Dominguez and his band of warriors had other ideas, and duly walloped their illustrious guests 34-20.
There was an insipid Rome loss in 2004, in the midst of Scotland’s most depressing championship in a generation. The hideous, stomach-churning show of self-harm in 2007 when Scotland quite literally threw away three tries in six minutes, setting Italy on their merry way to a first away win in championship history.
Andrea Marcato’s howitzer drop-goal followed in 2008. Then unfathomable losses in 2010 and 2012 and, most recently, an astonishing collapse in Edinburgh four years ago.
With good reason, Italy have long regarded Scotland as the juiciest of targets, the most fertile ground for a Six Nations triumph.
Dan Parks, the former Scotland fly-half who played Italy seven times, says it best when recounting one Roman conquering – in truth, he might be speaking about any of those five defeats on Italian soil.
“Somehow we managed to lose, which is what we did in Rome quite regularly. I don’t know why, but we did. If you don’t get away from them, they stick with you. If you get away, you’re OK, but if you don’t, you’re screwed. It’s really tough.”
Scotland didn’t get away from Italy last year. In fact, they had to do a hell of a lot of work just to keep pace with Conor O’Shea’s barnstormers. Greig Laidlaw got them there – just – but it’s a game most in the Scottish camp recognise should have been lost.
The defeat was a gut-punch for Italy, a blow cruellest and most keenly felt by their totem and captain, the great Sergio Parisse. It would seem an insult not to preface Parisse’s name with some acknowledgement of his incalculable contribution to rugby, particularly rugby in Italy, but on that day last year, he suffered his 100th loss in the colours of his country. Seldom can a player of such awesome brilliance be on the receiving end of so brutal a statistic.
Parisse has 134 caps – a mountainous haul even in the modern era – but only 34 victories. That day in Rome was his most recent outing. Saturday will mark his 66th Six Nations Test match, nudging him to the summit of the appearance standings, beyond another marvel of the game, Brian O’Driscoll.
You could write enough pages to fill a library when you sit down to analyse Parisse’s incredible skill-set and rousing leadership, but his legacy will be the monumental graft he and O’Shea have invested in hauling Italian rugby from its anarchic state into the professional realm.
At 35, this is likely Murrayfield’s last chance to watch the colossus go to work. We should all rejoice to have been rugby fans in the days of Sergio.
Parisse will be there – of course he will – but O’Shea has been shorn of some of his most impressive firepower from last season. Matteo Minozzi, the electric full-back who scored four tries in 2018, is out. So is back-row Jake Polledri, who bludgeoned and galloped through the Scottish defence at will, and winger Mattia Bellini, who played in every minute of last year’s championship.
Still, for the first time in an age, Italy have a wave of invigorating young talent and in Benetton, a professional team threatening to do something in the Pro14. Kieran Crowley’s team are second in Conference B with seven wins in 14, sitting above Edinburgh, Scarlets and Ulster.
O’Shea is confident Italy are getting to a place where their credibility in the championship can no longer be questioned, where consistently good performances yield wins, and wins are no longer shocking. For now, though, their record is undeniably grim.
That euphoric afternoon in the Edinburgh drizzle back in 2015 was their last championship victory. Seventeen defeats in a row and only one win over Scotland in their past 10 matches.
The record book is hardly kind to the Scots either. In eighteen tournaments, they have won their opening game twice – no coincidence that in both 2006 and 2017, they finished in their best-ever placing of third.
Gregor Townsend equalled that standing in his first Six Nations at the helm a year ago. The 2019 schedule has been about as kind to the Scots as it reasonably can, in a tournament where three of the world’s top four-ranked sides prowl.
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Watch: Gregor Townsend looks ahead to Italy clash
Starting with two home games, the first against the weakest side in the championship, is especially welcome since Scotland haven’t won in Ireland since 2010, in Wales since 2002, or France and England since 1999 and 1983. Italy, then Grand Slam behemoths Ireland visit Murrayfield in the opening two weeks. If Scotland are to match or better third place, the Azzurri must be subdued.
Townsend loves to launch a curveball when the time comes for team selection but his line-up for the opening weekend bears no great surprises.
Sam Johnson, the Glasgow centre, gets his long-awaited debut after injury denied him a cap in the autumn. Johnson is a wonderful tale, a Queenslander who rocked up in Scotland three-and-a-half years ago looking to play some rugby and stave off what he thought was an inevitable return “to the real world”. He fancied he’d be an electrician or some other tradesman back in Brisbane by now with the rest of his mates. Instead, he’s about to become an international.
Johnson arrived a little on the pudgy side, tentative and virtually silent in his early days at Scotstoun. His qualities as a player were obvious – scything line-breaks, sumptuous hands and fearsome tackling. Townsend saw it and so did his successor, Dave Rennie. With his residency period complete, he’s in the squad and has a tantalising chance to make the 12 jersey his own while so many of his rivals occupy the treatment table.
Moreover, it is in Scotland where Johnson has become a man and learned how to be a professional, where he has met “a beautiful Scottish girl” and where his heart now lies. Those who peddle vacuous statistics about “foreign-born players” ought to spend a little time in his company.
Outside Johnson, Sean Maitland’s nous and defensive savvy will be missed but the rangy Blair Kinghorn offers speed, line breaks and excellent off-loading. His Edinburgh colleague Darcy Graham is desperately unlucky not to feature after a scintillating period with his club.
Edinburgh’s snarling tight-five will bring ballast and a formidable set-piece, although of two of the club’s most effective pack members, Viliame Mata and Blair Schoeman, are not Scottish. A crying shame in particular that “Big Bill” does not have a Scottish granny.
Jonny Gray is injured but even if he were fit, he’d have had an almighty job displacing Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist from the boiler house. Sam Skinner will be a valuable asset on the blind-side flank, even if John Barclay and Hamish Watson leave sizeable holes in the back-row.
There are some high-profile absentees, for sure, but if Scotland are serious about a title challenge, they have to develop the sort of depth that allows for near-seamless rotation. They have to handle being favourites too, as they will be on Saturday, and they absolutely have to do better on their travels.
The Scots want to be gazing upwards at the summit and licking their lips at the heavyweights blocking their path, not glancing behind them at the Italian train doing its utmost to run them down.
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