Scotland's Rory Darge wary of Italy renaissance as sell-out crowd looks for miserable Rome run to end

Scotland hungry for their own success in front of an expectant home crowd

On the marble pathway leading up to the Stadio Olimpico are a series of plaques embedded in the ground which pay tribute to the greats of Italian sport.

The Walk of Fame features 140 Italian all-time champions, and includes footballing luminaries such as Gianni Rivera, Roberto Baggio and Dino Zoff, as well as three-time Olympic skiing champion Alberto Tomba and two-time Tour de France winner Fausto Coppi. Rugby is sparsely represented, with Marco Bollesan the sole entry.

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While the oval ball game will always play second fiddle to calcio in this football-mad country – you had to flick through to page 54 before you got to the Italy-Scotland preview in Friday’s Corriere dello Sport – it would be wrong to assume the Italian sporting public don’t care passionately about rugby.

Scrum-half George Horne has been back to be “super competitive in attack and defence” for Scotland against Italy.  (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire)Scrum-half George Horne has been back to be “super competitive in attack and defence” for Scotland against Italy.  (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire)
Scrum-half George Horne has been back to be “super competitive in attack and defence” for Scotland against Italy. (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire)

Saturday’s match is a sell-out, with 69,689 tickets snapped up for a fixture which attracted only 41,000 two years ago. There is a growing feeling that this Italy squad is close to a breakthrough. Their thrilling victory over Wales in Cardiff in 2022 was a huge moment and the home win over Australia eight months later strengthened their belief. Last month’s draw-that-should-have-been-a-win with France in Lille has ramped up the sense of expectation in Rome and Scotland co-captain Rory Darge believes the way the game ended will give the hosts plenty of motivational fuel. Italy looked set for a historic victory when Paolo Garbisi lined up a kickable penalty in injury time but the ball fell off the tee and the fly-half rushed his effort which struck the post.

“It’s a tough one to swallow but it happens to all teams and I imagine it’s a motivator for them,” said Darge. “They’ll be desperate to get something out of this game because they’ll feel like they should have in France.”

Scotland will be equally hungry and know that a bonus-point win is likely to be required if they are to take their Six Nations title challenge into a final-day showdown with Ireland in Dublin. Even that might not be enough as the Irish’s lead at the top of the standings is currently six points. The Scots need a favour from England who host the champions at Twickenham on Saturday in a match which will kick off around 40 minutes after Scotland’s finishes.

Darge said he was not looking beyond the immediate job in hand which was making sure Scotland win. Trying to also procure a try bonus point would be a bridge to cross if or when the opportunity arises.

“I think we'll have to see how the game goes, then while we’re in it we can make those decisions,” said the back-rower. “We’ve got to start well and go and win the game first of all. If it gets to the stage we’re on three tries, it might come into the thinking, but initially it’s just about winning the game.

“For us, a lot of the chat this week has been about the fact we’ve not had an 80-minute performance yet. That’s what our full focus is on. We’re just looking at our own performance and what we can do better. We want to put it together for the full game. That’s all we can control, so that’s all we’re focusing on.”

Darge will have Andy Christie alongside him in the back row on Saturday as Scotland look to go hard and quick at the breakdown. Christie has been excellent for Saracens this season, mainly as an openside, and although he’ll have the number six on his back against Italy, Scotland are essentially fielding two natural sevens to strengthen their turnover prospects. The inclusion of George Horne at scrum-half also suggests speed is of the essence for Gregor Townsend’s side as they look to chase and harry Italy from the off.

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“We want George to bring his key strengths which are getting to the breakdown quickly, getting the ball away and being super competitive in attack and defence,” said Townsend. “We feel that is the best way we can pressure Italy – producing quick ball within our structure and our way of playing. We’re looking forward to seeing George take that opportunity.”

Italy are boosted by the return of Sebastian Negri from injury and the experienced flanker replaces Riccardo Favretto. Prop Simone Ferrari comes in for Giosue Zilocchi in the only other change in the pack. The headline team news coming out of the Italian camp this week is that Louis Lynagh, the son of former Australia great Michael, will make his debut. Lynagh junior was born in Italy and has an Italian mother but played at under-20 level for England where he grew up. The Harlequins winger has already agreed a move to Benetton for next season as he goes all in with Italy. His inclusion sees Tommaso Menoncello move to centre alongside Ignacio Brex, with Federico Mori dropping to the bench.

For all the talk of the Italian resurgence, they have struggled in Rome. You have to go back to 2013 for their last win at the Stadio Olimpico, with the historic home victories over South Africa, in 2016, and Australia, six years later, both coming at Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi. Their public expects better in the capital.

Another familiar name on the Walk of Fame outside the stadium is that of Pietro Mennea who famously pipped Allan Wells for Olympic gold in the 200 metres in Moscow 44 years ago, denying the great Scot a famous sprint double. Townsend’s side will need to be close to their best to prevent a similarly notable Italian triumph over Scotland on Saturday.

Italy v Scotland: (Six Nations, Rome, Saturday, 2.15pm GMT. TV: live on ITV)

Italy: A Capuozzo; L Lynagh, I Brex, T Menoncello, M Ioane; P Garbisi, M Page-Relo; D Fischetti, G Nicotera, S Ferrari, N Cannone, F Ruzza, S Negri, M Lamaro, R Vintcent. Replacements: G Lucchesi, M Spagnolo, G Zilocchi, A Zambonin, L Cannone, S Varney, L Marin, F Mori.

Scotland: B Kinghorn; K Steyn, H Jones, C Redpath, D van der Merwe; F Russell, G Horne; P Schoeman, G Turner, Z Fagerson, G Gilchrist, S Cummings, A Christie, R Darge, J Dempsey. Replacements: E Ashman, A Hepburn, E Millar-Mills, S Skinner, J Ritchie, M Fagerson, A Price, K Rowe.



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