SCOTLAND coach Bryan Easson believes the draw for the Rugby World Cup qualifying tournament has been kind to his team, despite the fact that their first match this afternoon is against hosts and top seeds Italy.

The Italians beat Scotland with something to spare at Scotstoun in April, which might suggest that the visitors will be up against it this afternoon in Parma. But Easson, who has been able to select his strongest possible squad for this game after being deprived of key players during the Six Nations, is convinced that his opponents tend to grow stronger over the course of a tournament. In other words, if Scotland are to upset the odds, their best chance of doing so is in round one.

“I think it’s a great time to get the Italians,” he said. “What they’ve shown historically in the Six Nations is they tend to grow when they’ve had more time and performances together. So we’re really pleased to get them first up. They’re top seeds and for me it’s the best time to get them.”

Three key forwards who missed all or most of the Championship - Sarah Bonar, Jade Konkel and captain Rachel Malcolm - are all back in Scotland’s starting line-up today. In all, six members of today’s 23 were not involved in the 20-41 loss to Italy in Glasgow five months ago.

“I think it is probably the strongest team that we’ve put out for a few games now, to be honest,” Easson added.  “In the Six Nations we lost Rachel after two minutes of the first game, and Sarah and Jade were unavailable because of work. We’ve worked really hard behind the scenes with employers to make sure the strongest team would be available for this game.

“The big thing that we have now is a squad of 28. There’s a really good bench, but we’ve also got a really good 28 here. So we are able to pick players that we believe are the right players to win the next game. 

“Previously we’ve been able to pick a 15 and then no matter who we play that’s the 15. Now we have combinations we can look at, and the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and our own strengths and weaknesses.”

One of the team’s glaring weaknesses at times in recent years has been the lack of self-belief - a factor that was certainly evident the last time the Scots met the Italians. The return of the trio of forwards will go a long way towards ironing out that flaw, but Easson is also sure that the squad as a whole has made progress when it comes to having the mental toughness to go with their undoubted physical durability.

“The rugby has gone really well,” he continued. “We’ve been really pleased with how well the rugby content and detail has gone over the last few weeks - but since we arrived in Italy the focus has been on the mental side rather than on any more rugby detail.

“We’ve trained, we’ve worked quite hard, we’ve had a lot of player-led sessions on the detail required. But any meetings that we’ve had have been about keeping them fresh for the game, clear, confident and calm to go into the game. So it’s not about adding in more detail now, or cramming more information in, it’s just about making sure the top two inches are all set for the game.”

The winners of the competition qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in New Zealand and the runners-up go into a world play-off tournament. Scotland last reached the finals in 2010.

Scotland (v Italy at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma, Monday 2pm British time): C Rollie; R Lloyd, H Smith, L Thomson, M Gaffney; H Nelson, J Maxwell; L Bartlett, L Skeldon, C Belisle, E Wassell, S Bonar, R Malcolm (captain), L McMillan, J Konkel. Substitutes:  M Wright, L Cockburn, K  Dougan, R McLachlan, E Gallagher, M McDonald, S Law, E Musgrove.  

Italy: V Ostuni Minuzzi; M Furlan (captain), M Sillari, B Rigoni, M Magatti; V Madia, S Barattin; G Maris, M Bettoni, L Gai, V Fedrighi, G Duca, I Arrighetti, G Franco, E Giordano. Substitutes: V Vecchini, M Merlo, S Seye, I Locatelli, F Sgorbini, S Stefan, A D’Inca, A Muzzo.