6N Preview: Italy v Scotland
It's become an all too predictable feature of the Six Nations since Italy joined, but the Azzurri host Scotland in Rome on Saturday in a wooden spoon encounter.
A crowd of 70,000 is expected at the Stadio Olimpico but even that won't hide the fact this is a battle to avoid being the worst team in the tournament.
Italy have earned that dubious title nine times in 12 years since joining the competition and on two of the three occasions they didn't finish bottom, Scotland did.
The last time these two didn't finish in the bottom two places was in 2007 when Italy beat Wales at home and won at Murrayfield, their best ever Six Nations season, and finished fourth.
But in all four of Nick Mallett's seasons in charge, despite beating Scotland twice and France once, Italy finished bottom of the pile every time.
Playing Scotland again to avoid last place is something that Italy scrumhalf Edoardo Gori admits is a source of consternation for his teammates.
"I think there's a bit of frustration because we have almost always, since we entered the Six Nations, played against Scotland, and occasionally against Wales [to avoid finishing bottom]," he said.
"There's frustration there but there's a bit of confidence because we know our opponents, we know how they play and how we can hurt them.
"But it's the same thing for them, they know us."
Although both sides have lost all four matches so far, Italy coach Jacques Brunel actually believes Scotland are a better team than their results have shown.
"They're not a lot underneath the others, we've seen in all their matches they were in the game, they competed and could have won," he said.
"They're a very difficult team to play against, they're very mobile and powerful in certain areas.
"We can't look for the ideal match because if we always look for that we'll never find it.
"We're looking to see all the bits of the puzzle we've put in place, the good pieces, and to try to cut out the defects there have been in the previous games."
Scotland come into the game on the brink of major coaching changes.
Defence coach Graham Steadman is leaving, attacking coach Gregor Townsend is moving to Glasgow Warriors next season and head coach Andy Robinson is fighting for his survival.
And recalled centre Nick De Luca, who has Italian origins, says the players are eager to give their departing coaches a positive send off.
"We owe it to ourselves and to them [the coaches] to get a result this week," he said.
"We have to give everything for the full 80 minutes if we want to get a result in Rome. We've gone into the last game a lot without a win and got it.
"We're confident in our ability. Italy are a quality side but we have to be confident we can go out and get a result."
De Luca believes he can bring some intensity to the Scots' play.
"I'll be looking to bring my energy, my defence and my skills in attack back to the team and hopefully we can start ticking again.
"Our defence has got to be huge. They've got some big ball carriers and as a 13 I see myself as setting an example, so I'll be looking to do that."
Last season Italy went to Murrayfield full of confidence having beaten France in a historic match in Rome but they failed to perform, lost 21-8 and finished bottom on points difference.
The Azzurri have actually won their last two home games against Scotland but in 2008 they again finished bottom on points difference and two years ago the Scots' ability to get results against Ireland and England ensured they avoided the wooden spoon.
Players to watch:
For Italy: The return of iconic prop Martin Castrogiovanni means there will be some strong ball carries and a few brutal hits thrown in for good measure. One swallow does not a summer make, but he does make a difference. Another player always putting his body on the line is captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse . However, the crucial aspects will be attacking prowess of Andrea Masi, Gonzalo Canale's defence, Kris Burton's decision making and execution at flyhalf and Edoardo Gori's service at scrumhalf.
For Scotland: The return of Nick de Luca has placed a lot of focus on the midfielder, but most of Scotland's problems this season have been in the halfback positions - where flyhalf Greig Laidlaw and scrumhalf Mike Blair have the unenviable task of directing the ship on Saturday. You can bet on the loose forwards - David Denton, Ross Rennie and John Barclay - to do some hard yards. And then there is the exceptional skills of talented lock Richie Gray.
Head to head: You simply can't hide from the fact that both teams had struggled in the ;pivotal positions of flyhalf and scrumhalf - where Kris Burton and Edoardo Gori (Italy) will face off against Greig Laidlaw and Mike Blair (Scotland). It is not about their talents or ability, they all have plenty of that. It is about execution on the day. Of course the scrums will also be interesting - especially where Martin Castrogiovanni (Italy) and Allan Jacobsen (Scotland) lock horns.
2011: Scotland won 23-12, Edinburgh
2011: Scotland won 21-8, Edinburgh
2010: Italy won 16-12, Rome
2009: Scotland won 26-6, Edinburgh
2008: Italy won 23-20, Rome
2007: Scotland won 18-16, St Etienne (World Cup pool match)
2007: Italy won 37-17, Edinburgh
2006: Scotland won 13-10, Rome
2005: Scotland won 18-10, Edinburgh
2004: Italy won 20-14, Rome
Prediction: It is often close and often for the wooden spoon. It will be close this time, as it is again for the wooden spoon. The Azzurri will be fired up in Rome and the emotions will run high. If they can bottle that emotion and release in small dosages, they will win. Italy to sneak it - by less than 10 points.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Gonzalo Canale, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Kris Burton, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Lorenzo Cittadini, 18 Joshua Furno, 19 Simone Favaro, 20 Manoa Vosawai, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Giulio Toniolatti.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Max Evans, 13 Nick de Luca, 12 Graeme Morrison, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Greig Laidlaw, 9 Mike Blair, 8 David Denton, 7 Ross Rennie, 6 John Barclay, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford (captain), 1 Allan Jacobsen.
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Euan Murray, 18 Alastair Kellock, 19 Richie Vernon, 20 Chris Cusiter, 21 Ruaridh Jackson, 22 Jack Cuthbert.
Date: Saturday, March 17
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 13.30 (12.30 GMT)
Expected weather: Mostly cloudy with a small chance of rasin. High of 17°C and a low of 7°C.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Pascal Gauzere (France)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales)
AFP & rugby365.com