By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – While Ireland v England is the undoubted highlight of the opening weekend of the Six Nations, Scotland know their Murrayfield clash with Italy on the same day is of monumental importance to their own hopes.
Italy have fallen badly off the pace in the championship in recent years but when they have managed to snatch a win, it has usually been against the Scots.
The last of those came in 2015, however, and Gregor Townsend’s team are now heading into the championship with higher hopes than avoiding the wooden spoon for finishing last.
In both the 2017 and 2018 Six Nations they won three games, with last year’s third-placed finish equalling their best since it was expanded to include Italy in 2000.
With November wins over Fiji and Argentina and a close loss to South Africa, and with Glasgow and Edinburgh both through to the quarter-finals of the European Cup, there is a real feel-good factor around Scottish rugby after years in the doldrums.
“I think we’ve really reconnected with the people,” captain Greig Laidlaw said at the Six Nations launch on Wednesday.
“We’ve sold out the last 14 games I think, which is brilliant.”
Townsend, whose commitment to open, attacking rugby has played a major part in reviving interest, agreed, but was wary of over-confidence ahead of the Feb. 2 opener.
“We had a record win in Argentina in the summer so that was a positive,” he said.
“The expectations will be high throughout Scotland, more and more people are coming to watch us play at Murrayfield, but we realise it’s a very tough game to start with and where we felt we haven’t played as well, or close to potential, is when we’ve gone in as favourites.
“We should have lost to Italy in the Six Nations last year,” he said of the Rome game where Laidlaw’s 79th-minute penalty snatched a last-gasp victory. “They are a very tough team to play against and Scotland teams in the past have found them very difficult.”
Townsend does not have far to look to find fixtures where his team will be the underdogs. This year they have to travel to Paris and Twickenham, where they have not won since 1999 and 1983 respectively.
“It is an opportunity for us to create history, to win at those places for the first time in the Six Nations, but we will have to be at our best to do that,” he said.
“The Calcutta Cup win last year has given us a lot of confidence but that was a 10/10 performance, and to beat England, Ireland and Wales, that is what is required every time.
“What I want to see is a closing of the gap between our best performances and our not-so-good ones. That is what I will count as success in this Six Nations.”
However, Scotland’s campaign will again be hampered by a lengthy injury list, to which Townsend added flanker Hamish Watson. He is set to miss at least the first half of the championship after fracturing his hand playing for Edinburgh last week.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, additional reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Jon Boyle)