WITH great, if unwanted regularity since the inception of the Six Nations Championship, Italy and Scotland have met – whether in Rome or Edinburgh – with the only trophy on offer being the Wooden Spoon. Jokingly, it was said, that both nations found a use for such a utensil; Italy for their pasta, the Scots to stir the mince. Either way, one or other seemed guaranteed to have ownership of the fictitious booby prize.

An upturn in performance in the last few years means the Scots have avoided the basement slot in the championship table. But while Italy remain odds-on, year on year, to prop everyone up, it doesn’t mean Scotland can expect an easy ride of it on Super Saturday when the 2018 tournament concludes.

Former Scotland captain Bryan Redpath – the first to lead the Scots to a Six Nations victory in Italy – believes the Azzurri have been improving steadily under new "ownership" in the last few years and that Scotland should take nothing for granted in Rome.

“Scotland will start favourites. But that has never been any guarantee of a win,” says Redpath, who now works in the financial sector after coaching and management stints at Sale and Yorkshire Carnegie. “Italy has never been an easy place to visit, at any time,” reflected the 60-times capped scrum-half.

“I first went there when we were playing as amateurs, in the old ‘B’ international days, and it was always tough. You couldn’t afford to be slack, or suddenly Diego Dominguez would kick seven penalties and they’d be out of sight.

“If Scotland hadn’t had a particularly good championship, then visiting Rome was always a potential hazard, a game that could be lost. That mindset alone put us under pressure, even before we got there.

“Instead of believing we would always be the stronger team, we went with a negative approach and it cost us. Concentrating on the game, and not the external or peripheral stuff, is what is needed, and that is something Gregor Townsend has instilled in the players.

“And it will be no different for Italy. A top performance is required, because under coach Conor O’Shea, Italy, technically, have improved.”

As a former coach, Redpath is ideally placed to give an appraisal of where the Italians now are, in international terms.

“The Italians always had the potential to have some really good parts in games. They just couldn’t piece all that good play together and maintain that level of play. However, whenever they’ve got ahead, they had a good record of staying in front and it was very difficult to get back at them.

“Italy always had outstanding players who would just about get a game with any country – Dominguez, Martin Castrogiovanni, Sergio Parisse, a good kicker at 10, Alessandro Troncon at scrum-half – and they still have them. But the rest of the players are better across the squad.

“For me the biggest shift is that they now have a British mindset. And that is all down to the coach, Conor O’Shea, who has Mike Catt beside him. They are more ‘English’ in their thinking and coaching background. They are more efficient, spend more time on detail, and thinking about how they play, their contact skills, their open play, and their approach to the breakdown.

“Years ago, Italy were all about big scrums, big drives and outside of that, they were a bit lost. Now, they are less disjointed, more of a cohesive unit, as a team, not forwards doing their own thing. That makes them far more dangerous. They have a more complete game, not so much a French approach; scrum, line-out, bash.

“That’s what they had under John Kirwan – although a Kiwi he was still steeped in Italian rugby and went along with their way – and with Pierre Berbezier and Jacques Brunel. That style, while it worked at club level on the continent, particularly in France, it has been found lacking at international level.

“It took them a very long time to think about it that way. But Italy have changed and there are reasons for that; the coaches, being exposed to games against club teams, from other nations, especially in PRO14, and, their top players are scattered around Europe.”

Scotland too have changed under Townsend. But fundamentals, according to Redpath, need to be observed.

“The start is all important against Italy. Remember how badly wrong we got it that day at Murrayfield, when we were three scores down inside six minutes? You need to be on top of Italy from the off. Get on top and stay on top.

“If we stay calm and to our plan, we have better than what they have to offer.”

While Scotland’s back division has received most of the plaudits this term, that is to overlook the superb forward effort, according to Redpath.

“We’ve lost sight of how good our pack has played. France and England both turned up with massive forwards who were just going to batter us.

“But our scrum was good, the line-out drive was good, we mauled well. Defensively as well in those areas, we didn’t concede the kind of tries we have in the past, or collected yellow cards.

“Against England, we won the game – and they lost it – because they had an old-school mentality; pick a big pack, rough up and manhandle the Scots. Except it played into our hands.

“Scotland, with chop tackling, and ‘jackling’ and their quickness to the breakdown, were able to win ball and be 40 yards away while England were still piled up. It doesn’t matter if you are 7ft tall and 20-odd stones. That becomes irrelevant if you are being felled and robbed as soon as you try to run. You are not going to win the game like that, and repeating that, will beat Italy as well.”

And what does Redpath recall of that 2002 win?

“We’d lost in their first ever Six Nations game two years earlier and it was another tight one in 2002. But Brendan Laney kicked everything, and after Gregor [Townsend] had picked off an interception and scored, Laney scored a try with an outrageous show and go dummy, taking about four defenders out with it, and scored a great try

“We won that day because we took the passion and fire out of the Italians. It took 79 minutes to do it, but we won, eventually.”