Scotland v ItalyDate: Saturday, 10 June Venue: Singapore National Stadium Kick-off: 13:08 GMTCoverage: Live on BBC One Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland and the BBC Sport Scotland website
Gregor Townsend’s era as Scotland coach begins on Saturday in the stiflingly humid setting of Singapore and a stunning indoor stadium that will host a tier-one Test match for the first time.
In the context of what is happening in New Zealand, this is rugby small fry, but nobody will convince any of the Scots or Italians of that when they run out in the National Stadium at around 8pm local time (13:00 BST).
For Scotland, who are trying to get off to a flyer under Townsend, and Italy, who are attempting to rebuild under Conor O’Shea, this is the biggest of big deals.
The 55,000-capacity stadium will struggle to get a crowd above 10,000, but the significance of the Test is sizeable all the same.
This is a new Scotland regime – not just Townsend, but also Dan McFarland, who is now in charge of the forwards, and Mike Blair, who is skills coach – and they have made no secret of the fact that they don’t just want to win, they want to win playing a fast and furious brand of rugby.
“It will be hot,” said John Barclay, who captains the side in Greig Laidlaw’s absence. “But we back ourselves fitness-wise to adapt to the conditions.
“We want to play fast rugby. We’re not shy about saying that. That is how we want to play the game.
“The key thing is to do everything with speed. Hopefully, you’ll see a different way we approach it and sometimes it may not come off, but as long as the intent is there to play with speed, we’ll reap the benefits of that.”
Vern Cotter’s Scotland were not exactly slouches in the way they played, but upping the intensity has been a feature of the way Townsend has prepared his players in their weeks together.
“Under Vern, we played quick rugby as well,” said Barclay. “The intensity was high under him and he understood as a nation that that’s how we have to play. It’s how Gregor played at Glasgow and he’s placed more of an emphasis on it.”
Both line-ups have altered substantially since at Murrayfield at the tail-end of the Six Nations. Townsend and his counterpart, O’Shea, have made nine changes apiece, some enforced, some tactical.
As much as Scotland will miss their three Lions – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Laidlaw – as well as the rested Jonny Gray, the most grievous loss of all is Italy’s. Sergio Parisse, the colossus of Stade Francais, has been given the summer off.
Scotland will be expected to win this with plenty to spare. The Italians are drawn largely from Zebre and Treviso, with 13 of their starting 15 playing their club rugby with the failing Pro12 sides.
Treviso finished 10th in the league last season, Zebre finished bottom in 12th. Between them, they won only eight Pro12 games in the campaign just gone. They lost 36.
O’Shea has an Everest-like mountain ahead of him as he attempts to change the fortunes of not just his Test team but everything that happens – or doesn’t happen – underneath the top level.
For Scotland, the fascination will be seeing if they can deliver the increased tempo they’ve all been talking about.
Townsend is also exploring ways of increasing his player depth. Duncan Taylor, a wonderfully versatile footballer, is being given a run at full-back, while Damien Hoyland is given a chance on the wing.
This is a big day for Hoyland, who was viewed as the coming man last summer when selected to play against Japan. He hasn’t been seen in a Scotland jersey since.
Townsend is not blessed with a lot of quality wide men. He could do with Hoyland laying down a marker against Italy.
WP Nel’s return after a year out of the team with injury will have had Townsend paying homage to the rugby gods. If Scotland are to play at pace then they’re going to need a stable set-piece and Nel is as formidable a tighthead as there is in the northern hemisphere. Had poor fortune not befallen him, he would surely be in New Zealand right now with the Lions.
Townsend has gone with a Gray-free second-row – Richie injured and Jonny rested. It’s the first time in two years that neither Gray has started a Test for Scotland.
The new partnership is Tim Swinson and Ben Toolis. It’s a combination that promises much given their club form of last season. Swinson was also terrific off the bench for Scotland in the Six Nations.
Barclay spoke on Friday about the 29-0 game at Murrayfield, Cotter’s last as coach.
“The first half was very wet and it dictated quite a boring game with kicking and territory,” he said. “The second half opened up a bit.
“You have to expect the unexpected with Italy. It’s hard to predict what they are going to do, so we’ve just focused on ourselves. We have a new coach, new systems, new calling structures.”
New players too. To Barclay at any rate.
There’s a collection of youngsters in the squad that he’s only just getting to know, the latest one being Lewis Carmichael, the young Edinburgh lock who has been loaned to Western Force in Perth in Super Rugby since March. With more of an eye on the future than the present, Carmichael has been invited to train with the squad to experience an international environment.
“That’s why I love touring,” Barclay added. “There are only five guys who were on the Australia tour five years ago. It’s a bit surreal.
“There are guys here I don’t know well and they don’t know me very well. When I left Scotland (for the Scarlets in 2013), some of the guys were just young pups in the academy.”
Barclay leads them on Saturday. Anything other than a comprehensive Scotland win will be deemed a shock.
Scotland: D Taylor (Saracens); D Hoyland (Edinburgh), M Scott (Gloucester), A Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), T Visser (Harlequins); F Russell (Glasgow Warriors), A Price (Glasgow Warriors); A Dell (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), WP Nel (Edinburgh), T Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), B Toolis (Edinburgh), J Barclay (Scarlets), J Hardie (Edinburgh), J Strauss (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: F Brown (Glasgow Warriors), G Reid (Glasgow Warriors), Z Fagrson (Glasgow Warriors), R Harley (Glasgow Warriors), M Bradbury (Edinburgh), R Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), H Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors), P Horne (Glasgow Warriors).
Italy: E Padovani (Zebre); A Esposito (Benetton), M Campagnaro (Exeter Chiefs), T Boni (Zebre), L Sarto (Glasgow Warriors); T Allan (Benetton), E Gori (Benetton – capt); A Lovotti (Zebre), L Bigi (Benetton), S Ferrari (Benetton), M Fuser (Benetton), D Budd (Benetton), F Minto (Benetton), M Mbanda’ (Zebre), R Barbieri (Benetton).
Replacements: O Gega (Benetton), F Zani (Benetton), P Ceccarelli (Zebre), A Van Schalkwyk (Zebre), A Steyn (Benetton), M Violi (Zebre), C Canna (Zebre), T Benvenuti (Benetton).