EDINBURGH – Scotland head into a Six Nations opener at home to Italy on Saturday with their spirits lifted by having two club teams through to the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup for the first time in history – and with their sights set on a feat they last accomplished 92 years ago.
The Scots have won three matches in each of their last two Six Nations campaigns and have not completed three successive hat-tricks of victories in the Championship since 1927, way back in the old Five Nations days.
Having overcome Ireland, Wales and Italy at home in 2017, Vern Cotter’s last season as coach, Scotland beat England and France at Murrayfield, as well as Italy in Rome, last year to maintain their improvement under Gregor Townsend’s dynamic guidance.
Scotland have not lost a Six Nations match at Murrayfield since a 15-9 defeat by England on February 6, 2016, and have won 11 of their last 13 matches on home soil.
They have three home fixtures at Murrayfield, their Edinburgh headquarters, in this season’s Championship.
A week after Italy’s visit, Scotland host Ireland, their opening group opponents at the World Cup in Japan in September, with Wales travelling to Edinburgh on March 9.
Townsend is in no doubt that the Scots’ confidence has been lifted by Edinburgh and Glasgow reaching the last eight of Europe’s premier club tournament.
"The confidence from what we are doing at club level should put us in a good position but we need to transform that into a good performance against Italy," said the former Scotland fly-half, who has named a strong starting XV, despite a lengthy injury list featuring key players in lock Jonny Gray, wing Sean Maitland and flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson.
"Last year we felt our game was in a good position but we did not deliver in our first game.
"We can’t afford any poor starts this time round," added Townsend, who has given a debut to Glasgow’s Australian-born centre Sam Johnson, with uncapped flanker Gary Graham and hooker Jake Kerr on bench duty.
Fortunately for Townsend, whose team opened with a woeful 34-7 defeat by Wales in Cardiff 12 months ago, Scotland face an Italian side languishing in 15th spot in the World Rugby rankings and stuck on their longest-ever losing streak in the Six Nations.
Italy have racked up 17 successive defeats in the Championship since a 22-19 win against the Scots at Murrayfield on February 28, 2015. In their final November international last year they were thumped 66-3 by the world champion All Blacks in Rome.
Conor O’Shea’s side will be boosted by the return from injury of Sergio Parisse. Italy’s talismanic captain and No 8 will be making a record 66th appearance in the Six Nations, moving one ahead of former Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll.
"Every year for Italy the Six Nations is a massive challenge and this is going to be maybe the toughest for us,” said Parisse, noting the prominence in the world rankings of Ireland (2), Wales (3) and England (4).
"Our mental approach is going to be crucial. In every Six Nations, the first game sets the tone for the rest of the tournament," he added.
"We’ve got to go to Murrayfield and put down our best performance."
Parisse has happy memories of Murrayfield victories in 2007 and 2015, Italy’s only two wins outside Rome in 19 seasons of Six Nations action.
The 35-year-old Stade Francais back-row, who is considering retiring after the World Cup, will collect his 135th cap.
Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini joins Parisse in the 100-cap club, while former England Under-20 international David Sisi makes his Italy debut in the second row.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)