Gregor Townsend’s were fancied by many to mount a challenge for the title this season and the coach himself spoke of his squad being the strongest he had worked with since 1999 when he was player in the last Scotland team to win the championship.
The sense of optimism was heightened by a win over England on the opening weekend but subsequent defeats by Wales and France have left the Scots in fourth place, nine points adrift of Fabien Galthie’s side who lead the standings.
Now Townsend has added four players to his squad as they prepare for Rome, including two new stand-offs.
Having begun the campaign with only two No 10s in Finn Russell and Blair Kinghorn, the coach has doubled his options in the playmaker’s position by calling up Adam Hastings – surprisingly overlooked from the initial squad – and Glasgow Warriors’ Ross Thompson.
There is also a return for Jonny Gray, who damaged his ankle against Wales, and fellow lock Glen Young, the uncapped Edinburgh player.
Having already lost the services of Jamie Ritchie, Rory Sutherland and Scott Cummings to injury, Scotland confirmed on Monday that Nick Haining, Oli Kebble, Marshall Sykes, Ollie Smith and Rufus McLean would also miss the Italy game.
The sense that things are being shaken up was given added weight by Pieter de Villiers, the Scotland scrum expert. While the likes of Russell, Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson have long been considered totems of this squad, the message from the assistant coach is that players will be picked on form.
“Nobody is undroppable,” said de Villiers. “We have a squad and want to build confidence and people need to feel well in the squad. It is not just about selecting or deselecting players.
“It is important to keep competition going and to reward players that get back to their strengths.
“No one is guaranteed [a place]. We want to build on continuity, but we also want to reward somebody to add to the depth and keep players believing.”
De Villiers said there were no injury concerns around Russell and Kinghorn and that Hastings and Thompson were there on merit.
“It is because of their good club form, and keeping them involved as pivots is such an important part of the game in terms of systems and structures,” said the coach. “Gregor wants to make sure our depth is well looked after.”
Russell has started all three Six Nations games for Scotland but his influence has waned with each successive match. However, dropping such a gifted ten would be a radical move by Townsend who replaced the Racing player with Kinghorn for the final 20 minutes against France.
Kinghorn’s conversion from back three player to fly-half is a work in progress but the Edinburgh man showed up well for his club against Connacht on Friday night.
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Hastings is far more experienced as an international ten but to select him against Italy after omitting him from his original Six Nations squad would be quite the U-turn by Townsend.
There is less choice up front where injuries have conspired to rob the coach of a number of first-choice picks. While the return of Gray is welcome there is no guarantee that the Exeter second row will be fit for Rome. “He is still being assessed and we are not sure yet,” said de Villiers who explained the decision would rest with team doctor James Robson.
Dr Robson will also have a decision to make on No 8 Matt Fagerson who missed the France game with a foot injury sustained in Cardiff but has returned to training.
“Matt is going well,” added de Villiers. “We are waiting on feedback from James. He’s been training with the squad. I’m quietly optimistic.”
With Kebble having joined Sutherland on the injured list Scotland are looking light at loosehead prop but there are no plans to call up reinforcements at this stage. Pierre Schoeman is likely to start against Italy, with Allan Dell providing back-up from the bench.
“For the moment, we’ll stay with the squad as is,” said de Villiers. “We might bring [young Glasgow prop] Murphy Walker in to train with us, but he won’t be in the squad. Allan Dell is in [the squad]he’s fit and he’s ready to go.”
De Villiers said the coaches were “crossing their fingers” that Duhan van der Merwe would be available for Italy but the likelihood is that the winger will be suspended.
He will face a disciplinary hearing on Tuesday evening after being sat off while playing for Worcester Warriors against London Irish on Saturday when his forearm made contact with the face of fellow Scotland squad member Kyle Rowe.
If found guilty, the minimum ban van der Merwe could face would be two matches which would rule him out of the Italy match and Scotland’s final game, against Ireland in Dublin on March 19.
Personal issues aside, Scotland head to Rome desperate to avoid becoming the first team to lose to Italy in the Six Nations since 2015. For all that this has been a dreadful run for the Azzurri, they can still boast seven victories over the Scots since joining the competition and de Villiers is wary of it becoming eight.
“It is a very difficult place to play, a very passionate place in terms of energy and people getting behind their team,” he said. “Italy see Scotland as a team they want to take a scalp from and we know that.
“It has been very physical in the past in Rome. Italy might not always get the results, but they have a very physical team and we need to take that battle on the right side and get off to a good start.”
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