The match between Italy and Scotland has often been dubbed “the battle for the wooden spoon” and, looking at the stats, it usually is. Since Italy joined the competition in 2000, the bottom two teams have been Italy and Scotland on 11 occasions. Only once has neither side been in fifth or sixth position.
While both nations offer more to the competition than just the race to the bottom, the fact is, more often than not, they are competing for fifth place. Towards the end of former Scotland head coach Vern Cotter’s reign, the team came fourth back-to-back but, since then, they appear to be sliding backwards and it’s not inconceivable that they could finish last this time around.
Italy, meanwhile, haven’t won a game in the Six Nations since 2015 (we’re talking about the men’s team here; the women actually came second in 2019, winning three of their five matches). The last time they did was, of course, against Scotland. Away from home, in the third round, behind until the final minute of the game, Italy won 22-19 to condemn the Scots to sixth place.
The following two years, while not without drama, saw Scotland beat their rivals as part of their all-round improved performances in the tournament. In 2018, however, the Scots only won the match in Rome with a 79th-minute penalty from Greig Laidlaw, having been 12 points down in the second half. That 27-29 loss remains the closest Italy have come in the last five years to winning a match and avoiding last place.
The scoreline in 2019 flattered the Azzurri, who scored three late tries with Scotland were a man down and looking to the next match, enjoying Blair Kinghorn scoring their first Six Nations hat-trick in 30 years.
What lies in store this year? Both sides have lost their opening two rounds and seem destined to occupy fifth and sixth place again. Scotland have been comfortably the more impressive of the two, arguably deserving to defeat Ireland and subject to horrendous weather conditions against England. Italy were nilled in their opening game, conceding 42 points to a patchy Wales team, and another 35 against France — although, that time, they scored 22 points of their own.
Scotland are, of course, without the star fly-half, with both Finn Russell and head coach Gregor Townsend still refusing to back down in their disagreement. In Russell’s absence, Adam Hastings has shown himself a capable deputy but he does not have the former’s game-changing brilliance.
Italy have added one of the best goal-kicking coaches in the world, Albert Keuris, to their staff, hoping to finally convert their opportunities into points. They also have a new coach and a new attacking style and it might be that, after the two-week break, more pieces of the puzzle fall into place for their first home game of the tournament.
Most important of all, however, is Sergio Parisse. The man who has lost a record 108 test matches in Italian blue, who has played in more Six Nations matches than anyone else, who for so long was the focus of everything Italy did, is finally retiring. That match will be the final round against England but, despite not playing, he will surely inspire those in the Stadio Olimpico.
Parisse is no longer able to wrest victories for Italy through his sheer force of will but perhaps his team will be able to earn one for him, as the crowd gives him the retirement send-off he was denied in Japan.