Scotland v Italy: Townsend's side to brush aside opponents at Murrayfield
Simon Mail previews Scotland's opening Six Nations match against Italy and expects the hosts to have few problems at Murrayfield...
"Italy could be competitive in the early stages but home pressure is likely to see Scotland pull away towards the end."
Scotland v Italy
Live on BBC One
High hopes for Scotland
Scotland showed flashes of brilliance during last year's Six Nations, finishing third, but failed to find the consistency on the road to challenge for the title. Gregor Townsend's side have proved a very difficult team to beat at home, as they showed when toppling Eddie Jones' England, but remain frail away after being well beaten in Wales and Ireland.
Townsend has certainly not been fortunate with injuries heading into the championship with as many as 20 players unavailable including flanker Hamish Watson. Still, the Scotland head coach is not using injuries as an excuse and insists there is greater squad depth than in previous years.
Glasgow centre Sam Johnson makes his Scotland debut after the Australia-born back qualified via his residency last year. Blair Kinghorn starts on the wing while flanker Sam Skinner and lock Ben Toolis form part of an all-Edinburgh front five. Tommy Seymour plays on the wing with Saracens' Sean Maitland sidelined due to a hamstring injury.
Another year of struggle for Italy likely
Italy come into the tournament with expectations low after propping up the table for the last three years. Conor O'Shea is still looking for his first Six Nations win since taking charge in 2016. Japan and Georgia are the only teams Italy have beaten in the last 13 internationals so it looks like being another tough campaign for the Azzurri.
Sergio Parisse will set a new record this weekend when the Italy captain makes his 66th appearance in the Six Nations. Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini will win his 100th cap while David Sisi makes his debut in the second row. Tommaso Allan starts at fly-half, with Tito Tebaldi picked to play alongside him at scrum-half.
Scotland dominant despite the odd scare
Scotland were given a major scare by Italy 12 months ago after trailing 17-12 in Rome at half-time and only a 79th minute penalty from Greig Laidlaw edged them to a 29-27 victory. The Scots were guilty of complacency and almost paid the price but the side have won their last six matches against Italy.
Scotland were shocked 22-19 at Murrayfield by Italy four years ago although the current side looks much stronger than that version. It is almost impossible to envisage a similar outcome this year with Townsend's team heading in the right direction and boasting an impressive home record. It will surely be just a case of the margin of victory against Italy.
The handicap mark is set at 24 points but a better bet could be to side with Scotland to cover a 12-point second-half handicap. Italy could be competitive in the early stages but home pressure is likely to see Scotland pull away towards the end. Scotland have won the second half against Italy by at least 14 points in their last two games at Murrayfield.
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P/L 2018-19 season