CONSECUTIVE defeats by France and Ireland may have deprived today’s game of the promise of rich reward it could have held for Scotland, but even so, Gregor Townsend’s team will not be lacking in incentives to beat Italy and end this year’s Six Nations on a high.

The title itself is out of reach, and will go to either Ireland - who are strong favourites to complete a Grand Slam by beating England - or France, who can at least put some pressure on the Irish by winning at home to Wales in the middle match of the afternoon. Yet a bonus-point victory at BT Murrayfield in the first game of the day will all but ensure Scotland of a third-place finish, something they have only managed four times previously since Italy joined the tournament in 2000. And given the two teams above them are first and second in the current World Rugby rankings, that would be no mean achievement.

There is in fact an outside chance of finishing second, which would be Scotland’s highest ever Six Nations placing. But that would require the French to lose with no match points in addition to a big swing in the teams’ points differential, and in any case, no-one in the Scotland camp is likely to waste too much time on such hypotheticals. 

The focus today is purely on beating Italy, ideally in convincing, entertaining fashion. And the squad selected by Townsend is in the right frame of mind to do exactly that.

Yes, the head coach’s hand has been forced by injury in the case of three of the four changes he has made in his starting 15. But, while he would rather have Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Richie Gray available to him, Townsend was in any case minded to make some alterations elsewhere with the aim of injecting fresh energy into the team just six days after that strength-sapping battle with Ireland.

Russell was also ruled out of this fixture two years ago, when Hogg came in at stand-off and played a major role in a 52-10 triumph which saw the Italians concede eight tries. This time Blair Kinghorn has taken over the No 10 jersey, and the Edinburgh man will surely be given a similar game plan to the one handed to Hogg in 2021: keep the Italians guessing with your selection of options, force them on to the back foot, and go for the jugular when you can. 

Ollie Smith, who takes over at full-back from Hogg, can also be a potent attacking force. The Glasgow player has seen no action so far in the tournament, and needs to seize this opportunity to make an impact.

Up front, Sam Skinner returns to the second row in place of the injured Gray, and Hamish Watson is back at openside in a rejigged back row. Those two can also be expected to put in dynamic performances, while we should look out for some explosive energy off the bench as well: from hooker Ewan Ashman and loosehead prop Rory Sutherland, but perhaps especially from replacement back Cameron Redpath, who is capable of quickly turning a game in his team’s favour with his eye for an opening and adroit passing skills.

“Although the changes have been enforced, that little bit of new blood and new energy into the group from guys who have been chomping at the bit for an opportunity is just what we needed in that short week,” captain Jame Ritchie suggested yesterday after the squad’s final training session. “A lot of guys are stepping up to lead who have maybe been waiting in the wings or staying more quiet, so it's been good.

“I see Blair work every week, every day, and I know he has been chomping at the bit to get a starting role for the whole tournament, not just this game. Every game he’s come on he’s made an impact, so I’m excited to see him get going from the start. Ollie has been desperate to get playing as he’s been training really well, so I’m looking forward to seeing him get the ball.”  

Before the tournament began, Ritchie declined to commit himself to targeting a specific number of wins from his team’s five matches, preferring to say the aim was five good performances. The second-half slump against Ireland six days ago means that aim will not be fully realised, but he believes that Scotland can at least end up with a high pass mark by putting in their best display today.

“I outlined our goal of five good performances and I think we're at 3.5 just now. To get it up to 4.5 would be good, so we're looking for a strong performance. To secure that third place outright would be a positive.

“For us it's about maintaining the same standards and trying to put out our best performance, which I don't think we've done yet. I don't think we've put out that complete 80-minute performance so tomorrow's the day, hopefully.

“There were points in the game last week when we went away from things we had been doing really well. It’s about us being true to ourselves and trusting what we’re trying to do. 

“Italy will be frustrated that they've played a lot of really good rugby and run a couple of good teams close but not converted that into results,” he continued, referring to a run of results that has seen the Italians collect just one losing bonus point - against the French - from their four outings so far. “They come here with nothing to lose. “They're always a passionate team, but there might be a little bit more passion because they enjoy playing against us, they target this game. We know there will be a challenge coming against potentially the best Italy team we've ever played, so we need to be ready. 

“If we can starve them  of oxygen and energy by playing how we want to play, put them under pressure, then we can hopefully get on top of them. It’s about making sure we do it for 80 minutes.”

It is hard to envisage this Italian team becoming the best ever to play against Scotland given the absence of their most gifted player, the injured full-back Ange Capuozzo. But Ritchie’s caution is understandable: while Scotland may be a stronger all-round team, Italy are more than capable of rising to the occasion and punishing any complacency. If they do avoid that particular flaw, however, and maintain solidity at the set piece, Ritchie and his team-mates should have the cutting edge in attack to ensure victory by at least a couple of scores.