ROME (AP) — Nobody likes Scotland as much as Italy does.
The Scots are the team Italy beat most often in Six Nations rugby: Six times out of 14, the last three at home. And yet again, victory for either side at Stadio Olimpico on Saturday will make the difference between a so-so tournament and the embarrassment of the wooden spoon.
Italy hasn't finished last since 2011, and Scotland not since 2012. Momentum, beside home advantage, is with Italy. The Azzurri have showed more of an all-court game in fighting defeats to Wales and France, scoring three tries, one more than Wales, and three more than Scotland.
The biggest revelation has been centre Michele Campagnaro, who made a try-scoring debut in November against Argentina after only eight senior games, then became the first player in nine years to score two tries in his Six Nations debut.
If only Italy had a goalkicker just as good. Flyhalf Tommaso Allan, a former under-20s teammate of Campagnaro who also made a try-scoring debut in November against the Wallabies, has a 50 percent goalkicking rate so far, better only than Scotland's Greig Laidlaw.
But coach Jacques Brunel has faith Allan will come right. Brunel made three changes, bringing back experienced Treviso flankers Alessandro Zanni and Robert Barbieri, while recalling right winger Angelo Esposito, the 20-year-old who made his debut against Wales in the opener.
"Scotland could be the opponent able to put us most in difficulty," Brunel said. "We have worked as always on the defense, which I think has improved from last year even if there are still too many individual errors. We still have to learn to take control of games when we can. In Wales, we conceded too many points at the beginning, and in France we created a lot without finishing off as many as we should, but creating chances of scoring a try is something positive."
Captain Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, who made their debuts together in 2002 against the All Blacks, will set the Italy caps record together with their 104th appearances. "It's a nice thing but I'm not here thinking about the games I've played, that I will play or the record because that's not rugby for me," Castrogiovanni said. "For me, rugby is my team, my teammates, going out onto the pitch. All the rest doesn't matter to me.
"I saw a photo of Sergio and me in our first match together and one of our last match. What stood out for me was how much thinner he was and how much more hair he had." Scotland also made three changes, and again coach Scott Johnson confounded observers. Johnson dropped No. 8 David Denton, Scotland's best player so far, for Johnnie Beattie, whom he believed will provide better link play in the fast game they plan. British Lions lock Richie Gray was back, after missing the abysmal 20-0 loss to England.
Johnson and Scotland have received withering criticism; Johnson for being too glib, and Scotland for being awful. Johnson said he undersood and welcomed it. He'd kept faith with players who'd let him down, because his young side would improve only with more experience.
"There have been easier weeks in my life," he said. "The key for us this weekend is execution of skill. That's it. We execute, we win, we don't, we lose."
Italy: Luke McLean, Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Leonardo Sarto, Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori; Sergio Parisse (captain), Robert Barbieri, Alessandro Zanni, Joshua Furno, Quintin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovani, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alberto de Marchi. Reserves: Davide Giazzon, Matias Aguero, Lorenzo Cittadini, Marco Bortolami, Paul Derbyshire, Tobias Botes, Luciano Orquera, Tommaso Iannone.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Sean Lamont, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw (captain); Johnnie Beattie, Chris Fusaro, Ryan Wilson, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Moray Low, Scott Lawson, Ryan Grant. Reserves: Ross Ford, Alasdair Dickinson, Geoff Cross, Tim Swinson, David Denton, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Taylor, Max Evans.