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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: Ten years after Scotland’s last loss in Rome, what are we still so afraid of?

Scotland's Darcy Graham scores their third try in the 52-10 win over Italy last year.

Believe me, I know the perils of being overconfident about Scotland playing Italy.

This will be the 12th time I’ve gone to Rome to watch Scotland. There’s been calamities – not least the very first Six Nations game there, when reigning champions Scotland were unhinged by Diego Dominguez.

There’s been last-minute drop goals, length of the field counterattacks and one game – in 2012 – was possibly the worst Six Nations game I’ve seen in 25 years of covering the tournament.

Not uncoincidentally, that was the last time Scotland lost in Rome and indeed the only time they’ve lost at the Stadio Olimpico.

It ended a whitewash season – the game against Italy really was a wooden spooner in those days. And how Andy Robinson survived that debacle to run into a even bigger one – Tonga at Pittodrie – later that year shows how low the expectations were then.

Scotland have just reverted to average

Things are different now. The Olimpico, strangely, is a less intimidating place to play than the old venue with a third of the capacity, the Stadio Flaminio. That was a real cauldron and a great place to watch a game. But sadly it now lies rotting on the other side of the Tiber from the Olimpico complex.

Scotland have – rightfully – copped a lot of criticism this season for not building on the promise of 2021. They’ve curiously been the subject of often derisive analysis from all parts.

“Something’s gone terribly wrong with Scotland” wailed one website. Really? They’ve reverted to average, which many of us saw coming in November.

We’d far rather they’d kicked on after last spring and the Calcutta Cup win, but it’s hardly a crisis.

This week’s game is once again being billed as a wooden spoon decider, which I suppose in some ways it might be. But in truth Italy have not been competitive with Scotland for a decade, and I don’t expect them to be any more so this weekend.

Scotland are on a run of 10 wins in a row against Italy. Some of them were more squeaky-bum time than we’d have liked. There was Duncy Weir’s last minute drop goal in 2014, and Greig Laidlaw’s pinpoint penalties in 2018.

But Italy had a decent side then. They may have the green shoots of a decent side here, but if so they’ve barely breached ground level. Any perception that Italy have improved this season is just that.

Italy aren’t that much further on than 2021

The hard data shows they haven’t scored a try since the 17th minute of the first game, and have 16 points in three losses thus far. We all desperately want Italy to be better than they are – from what I see, they’re not much further on from 2021.

Gregor Townsend’s first match as Scotland coach was against Italy, in Singapore of all places. He’s never lost to them in six games, and the last four encounters Scotland have outscored Italy by exactly 100 points.

Despite this recent record, the Italians still focus on this match as the one they can win. That’s mostly a holdover from the 2008-2014 period when Scotland were pretty poor and Italy were at least decent. It really hasn’t been that way for a while now.

So when I make my biennial pilgrimage to the Eternal City this week, as usual I will be expecting Scotland to win. And really, there isn’t even that slight, nagging trepidation you use to have that it could all go wrong.

It shouldn’t. If it does, then it officially WILL be a crisis.

The knee-jerk revisionism

Last year Scotland got all adventurous with selection against Italy, and it made not a bit of difference. Instead, it was a record 52-10 win.

I don’t think Gregor Townsend will be inclined to be too adventurous this time. It’s an away fixture, and you don’t want to give the Italians even a sniff if you can help it.

So, the idea that Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are under pressure for their places is, to be blunt, guff. It’s only 160 minutes ago that Russell’s tactical genius was being lauded and Hogg’s leadership praised beyond measure.

The knee-jerk revisionism has been almost instantaneous. And if you seriously think Scotland can get anywhere going forward to the World Cup without their two most recognisably X Factor players, then seriously, you need your head felt.

I think Scotland have missed Jamie Ritchie much more than they expected, as much on their own ball as when the opposition have it.

But I’m really keen to see the Rory Darge-Hamish Watson backrow combination. A return for Matt Fagerson would be welcome.

At half-back, Ali Price and Russell have been below their usual standards, but I’d still back them to break out of it.

To hell with the Kinghorn plan – for now

I’m not convinced about Sione Tuipulotu in the centre – especially after that dreadful stand-up missed tackle on Antoine Dupont for France’s first try.

It’s puzzling they haven’t gone back to Sam Johnson, who was always solid and gelled so well with Russell. But I guess having come this far, not to give Tuipulotu a shot against the Italians would be slightly unjust.

With Duhan van der Merwe banned, I think to hell with their bright ideas for Blair Kinghorn just now. Play him on the wing.

Blair K did have his best game yet at 10 for Edinburgh in the rout over Connacht last Friday. But let’s be serious, if Russell goes down with something it’s going to be Adam Hastings in Dublin.

Kinghorn could yet be a world-class international 10, as Mike Blair believes. But it’s too early a work in progress to risk just yet.

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