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Rugby Union

Azzurri ambition threatens Scots

On the eve of the Six Nations' Championship, John Kirwan could be found reflecting on the attractions of la dolce vita. "Don't disturb us between two and three in the afternoon," he said. "That's when we're sleeping." The trouble for the coach of the rugby-playing Azzurri is that his boys in blue have been sneaking a little extra siesta time on their playing days.

Italy's last two matches have both kicked off at 3pm local time and by 3.40pm they have been 41-10 behind against France and 33-0 down against England. Having registered second-half scores of 17-12 (against France) and 5-7 (against England), their Six Nations' finale at Murrayfield today will be no dead rubber of a contest if Kirwan's men set their wake-up call for some time before 3pm.

For Kirwan, as an international coaching novice, the prize at stake is a higher place in his first championship season than Ian McGeechan, a coaching veteran, would gain in his last. Barring a Welsh win in Paris today, Italy are already destined to finish off the bottom of the Six Nations' pile for the first time. An Italian win at the expense of McGeechan's Scotland would secure fourth place in the 2003 table – two significant rungs up the ladder for the country and the coach.

A championship win on foreign soil would also be a notable step up. Italy almost achieved one at Murrayfield two years ago, losing 23-19, and it was against the Scots, of course, that they launched their Six Nations' life with a 34-20 win in Rome in 2000 – a match which also marked a new start for McGeechan, in his second incarnation as Scotland's coach.

Scotland have been a shadow of the giantkillers they were in McGeechan's first coming, when they hit the Grand Slam heights in 1990 and came close to beating Kirwan and the All Blacks at Eden Park that summer. It has been such a trying time for them because of their inability to score tries. Their lack of a cutting edge has been painfully blunt in the Six Nations' Championship this season, having failed to cross the opposition line in three of their four matches. Italy have scored in all four of their games, racking up nine tries. Scotland's tally is a meagre three, all plundered in the 30-22 home win against Wales three weeks ago.

For all the spirit Scotland showed in their 40-9 defeat at Twickenham a week ago, it is little wonder that they are approaching their Italian test with a measure of trepidation. As Bryan Redpath, their captain, warned: "Italy are as big a threat as any other nation. Two or three years ago they relied on kicking penalties. Now they're scoring tries."

Two years ago the Italians scored a peach of a try at Murrayfield, when Mauro Bergamasco blazed a glorious blind-side trail past Gregor Townsend, Redpath and Chris Paterson. The flanker-turned-winger is out with a thigh injury but the Italian team includes another Bergamasco jack of all trades. Mirco, Mauro's 20-year-old brother, is a scrum-half-turned-centre-turned-full-back who arrives at Murrayfield on a hat-trick, having scored against England and France.

The Scots have targeted his defensive naïvety as a potential weak spot. But, then, judging by the attacking penetration shown by McGeechan's men thus far in the championship, the Italians hardly need to build a wall like Hadrian's to keep out the Scots.