ROME, Italy, Feb 20 – Franco Smith can smell blood as the new Italy coach prepares for this first home game in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday against a weakened Scotland in the Six Nations.
Both teams are looking for their first win of the tournament after two defeats apiece, with the loser likely to end up with the wooden spoon this campaign.
Italy are on a run of 24 consecutive defeats in the tournament, stretching back to 2015, and want to avoid finishing last for a 15th time.
“We are proud and we want to win,” said Smith, who took over from Conor O’Shea in November.
“We want to play a big match in front of our fans at the Stadio Olimpico, showing everyone our real potential.”
They have a chance to do so against Scotland who were the last side to have been beaten by Italy in the Six Nations in Edinburgh back in 2015.
The last time the two teams met in the Stadio Olimpico in 2018, a late Greg Laidlaw penalty snatched a 29-27 win for the Scots.
The teams have met ten times in Rome and won five each, but Scotland have won the last three.
After a 42-0 thrashing to holders Wales in Cardiff, the Azzurri showed signs of life with three tries before falling 35-22 to France in Paris.
Scotland fell to Ireland (24-14) and then England (13-6), but unlike Italy have two bonus points.
“We’ve shown progress against France,” said Smith.
“Each game is a chance to increase our skills, we have been working together for a month to build our identity, our DNA.”
The South African has made just one change from the France game with 118-times capped lock Alessandro Zanni replacing Dean Budd, who drops to the bench.
Zanni pulled out of the match against France before kick-off due to injury.
“It’s important to me to have a core of players who know exactly what we want and who can act as reference points on the pitch,” said the former Treviso and Free State Cheetahs coach.
The most difficult task would be to build a side who could be competitive throughout the match.
“Those who start as slightly the underdog tend to get into difficulty when they are ahead in the score,” said Smith.
“I think I already have clear how the situation will be halfway through the game.
“Physicality is an aspect of the game of Italy that we are trying to develop more and more.”
– ‘Real ambition’ –
The match will be a big test for Scotland coach Gregor Townsend after a disappointing World Cup.
“It’s a different Italy team to the one we’ve played in the past,” said Townsend.
“In their opening two games of the championship they have played with real ambition and width.
“Italy are always a very tough opponent, especially in Rome, where we know they’ll look to play with a huge amount of energy.
“We are well aware of the threats throughout their team and how their attacking game can cause problems for any defence.”
Townsend has dropped centre Huw Jones who played in both the defeats with Chris Harris coming in as one of three changes from the England game.
Former captain Stuart McInally comes in at hooker for Fraser Brown, who drops to the bench, and Ben Toolis starts in the second row with Jonny Gray side-lined with a hand injury.
Fly-half Finn Russell remains exiled after a falling out with Townsend for breaching team protocol.
Scotland and Italy have never won the Six Nations.
The Scots won the final edition of the five-team format in 1999, before the Azzurri joined in 2000.