By Tadhg Peavoy
When the RBS 6 Nations fixtures were released and Italy were chalked down to play Scotland at the Stadio Olimpico on the final day, the writing was on the wall: this was going to be the Wooden Spoon decider.
Both sides have played some solid rugby at times in this championship, and both sides have come close to unlikely victories.
England were given an almighty scare by the Azzurri in Rome, before poor Italian place kicking and decision making cost them a historic first win against the Red Rose.
Scotland began this championship metaphorically thumping their chests and claiming in unison that they were about to turn a corner, play running rugby, and create enough tries to reach the upper echelons of the tournament’s league table. That was not to be.
A Charlie Hodgson block-down try led to a cruel defeat to England, and a lack of stamina meant Scotland ground to a halt in the last 20 minutes against France, when victory was very much a possibility.
And so both teams come to Rome fighting for fifth place.
Italy are buoyed by the return of prop Martin Castogiovanni, one of the best scrummagers in the world, and a totemic leader for the Azzurri.
He is one of six Italian changes following defeat to Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
Giovambattista Venditti, Tommaso Benvenuti, Edoardo Gori, Robert Barbieri and Marco Bortolami also all return to the starting XV.
In truth, this reshuffling has been a constant of Jacques Brunel’s management throughout his first Six Nations in charge. Whether it has proved beneficial, or merely disrupted the flow of the team is debatable. One thing is certain, Barbieri is a fine player and his inclusion in the back row will benefit Italy’s captain Sergio Parisse.
Scotland make just one change to the side that lost to Ireland in Dublin last week. Nick de Luca comes into the side for Lee Jones, who suffered severe concussion following a horrific collision with Andrew Trimble.
De Luca starts in the centre, with Max Evans moving to the wing.
Other than that, the Scots’ head coach Andy Robinson has pledged faith to his charges and essentially said, “I believe you can do better.”
On overall form in the tournament, Scotland are the better team. Stuart Hogg has been massively dangerous from full-back, while Greig Laidlaw and Mike Blair have been afforded plenty of room to create behind a very strong, dynamic Scottish pack.
Italy also have a fine pack, with Castrogiovanni, Parisse and Barbieri all having outstanding moments this year. Behind the front eight, Italy have been nothing short of woeful: poor kicking; a lack of depth on strike running; an inability to make the right decision at the right time; and terrible defending have cost the continental Europeans badly.
But last week form changed. Italy defended astutely and aggressively against Wales and were very hard to breach. While Scotland, despite plenty of possession, were rather toothless at the Aviva Stadium.
Italy will come into the tie on a high. They ran the Welsh close and will feel that they are reaching their spring acme. Scotland on the other hand will feel bruised and battered and may feel as though they have missed their chances for victory already.
Much will depend on how Scotland can pick themselves up and give it one last go. They need to win to avoid a seventh consecutive defeat for the first time since 1998 and that will give them plenty of impetus. But history is against them – they have not won in Rome since 2006.
Italy need to move the ball wide and play with more quality and incision, while maintaining the pressure and tight defence they showed against Wales last week. They must go for the jugular early on.
If the Azzurri can do that, tired Scottish bodies could begin to wilt.
This will be a brutally physical encounter where either side could snatch victory. With home advantage taken into account, Italy may just want it that little bit more.
Prediction: Italy 18-14 Scotland
Italy v Scotland, RBS 6 Nations, Stadio Olimpico, Saturday 17 March, kick-off 12.30pm:
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi 14 Giovambattista Venditti 13 Tommaso Benvenuti 12 Gonzalo Canale 11 Mirco Bergamasco 10 Kristopher Burton 9 Edoardo Gori 1 Andrea Lo Cicero 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini 3 Martin Castrogiovanni 4 Quintin Geldenhuys 5 Marco Bortolami 6 Alessandro Zanni 7 Robert Barbieri 8 Sergio Parisse.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice 17 Lorenzo Cittadini 18 Joshua Furno 19 Simone Favaro 20 Manoa Vosawai 21 Tobias Botes 22 Giulio Toniolatti.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg 14 Max Evans 13 Nick De Luca 12 Graeme Morrison 11 Sean Lamont 10 Greig Laidlaw 9 Mike Blair 1 Allan Jacobsen 2 Ross Ford (captain) 3 Geoff Cross 4 Richie Gray 5 Jim Hamilton 6 John Barclay 7 Ross Rennie 8 David Denton.
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson 17 Euan Murray 18 Alastair Kellock 19 Richie Vernon 20 C Cusiter 21 Ruaridh Jackson 22 Jack Cuthbert.