Scotland coach Townsend says Italy deserve Six Nations spot

·3-min read

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has no doubt perennial strugglers Italy should keep their place in the Six Nations Championship ahead of this weekend's match at Murrayfield.

The Azzurri have lost their last 31 Championship fixtures -- a woeful run dating back to a 2015 win over Scotland in Edinburgh.

Italy's points difference after just four games this year is a miserable -142, and defeat by 10 points or more on Saturday would ensure, statistically, the worst Six Nations campaign recorded by any side.

But former Scotland fly-half Townsend, who was on the losing side against Italy in their Six Nations debut, knows the Azzurri have not always been this weak and believes better days lie ahead.

"I think they've been a fantastic addition to the Championship and have beaten us a few times over the years including in 2000 in their first game," he said.

- 'Big future' -

"I believe they are playing some of the most attractive rugby in the tournament.

"Yes, they've not won a game yet but they're playing with ambition.

"They've decided to go down the route of bringing young players through now with the goal, I'd imagine, of being more competitive as that team grows, whether that is next year's Six Nations or heading towards the (2023) World Cup.

"When you see the performances of their Under-20s, then I believe they've got a big future."

Italy coach Franco Smith has made four changes to the side hammered 48-7 by leaders Wales, with 20-year-old centre Federico Mori given his first start.

"We have a big challenge ahead of us," said Smith.

"We want to win on Saturday, to close the tournament in the best possible way and continuing on the path to becoming more and more competitive."

Scotland have long believed they would have to play three matches in three weeks and this was confirmed Thursday when last month's tie against France, postponed by a coronavirus outbreak in the French camp, was rescheduled for March 26.

The prospect of fixture congestion contributed to Townsend making five personnel changes to the side beaten 27-24 by Ireland, although captain Stuart Hogg has moved from fullback to fly-half against Italy because of Finn Russell's concussion.

"Hoggy obviously covered 10 last week and has done so in previous games," said Townsend. "We believe that gives us a better balance to the team."

Townsend has also handed first starts to scrum-half Scott Steele and hooker Dave Cherry.

Scotland beat reigning champions England 11-6 in their tournament opener for a first Twickenham triumph against the 'auld enemy' since 1983.

But the impact of that success has been dulled by subsequent narrow losses to Wales and Ireland.

"We want to show a truer picture of what the players are capable of and what we've been working on in training," said Townsend.

"We set the bar at a high level in the first game and the first 30 minutes of the second game, but we've not been back up there in the remaining time."