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Italy believes it can avoid record 18th straight loss in 6N

February 1, 2019
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Scotland's Greig Laidlaw during the captain's run at BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland, Friday Feb. 1, 2019. Scotland play Italy in a Six Nations Championship match on upcoming Saturday Feb.2. (Jane Barlow/PA via AP)

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — Conor O’Shea ought to be long gone.

If not forced out, then have seen the light and walked quickly toward it.

Few first-time national rugby coaches have had to endure what he has as Italy’s coach since mid-2016.

His results are dire.

Overall, six wins in 28 matches.

In the Six Nations, even worse. Italy has lost its last 17 tests, 10 of them under O’Shea. If, as everyone predicts, Italy loses again on Saturday to Scotland at Murrayfield, that’ll be No. 18, and the championship’s new standard of despair. Italy will leave behind the France team of 1911-20.

Italy won at Murrayfield as recently as 2015, but Scotland has become a much better side, with a formidable spine starting from Willem Nel at tighthead and Stuart McInally at hooker, through captain Greig Laidlaw at scrumhalf, Finn Russell at flyhalf, and Stuart Hogg at the back.

And yet O’Shea and, for that matter, Italy, don’t despair.

The glass is always half full for the former Ireland fullback, and his long-term plan to rouse Italian rugby from the ground up is starting to stir.

Italy scored 12 tries in the 2018 championship, its most in 15 years. Treviso missed becoming the first Italian club to reach a European playoffs by one point. Italy’s other professional club, Zebre, saved from bankruptcy by the Italian federation a year ago, is back on two feet. The Italy Under-20s were fourth last year, their best finish in the Under-20 Six Nations in 11 years. Then at the under-20 worlds they were eighth, above Ireland and Scotland.

O’Shea will be at Murrayfield on Saturday, having given a 26th player a test debut, believing that a turnaround in fortunes is closer than it was a year ago. Even though everyone else has improved, too.

“We are always going to be challenged mentally,” O’Shea says. “The mental challenge is you have to put up with questions like, ‘Are you good enough? Are you better?’ and we have to go out and prove it. There’ll be plenty of times when people will have a bat, and say, ‘Told you so, you’re not,’ but we’ll come again and come again.

“We’re having to pick ourselves up all the time and drive forward, and ignore people who say it’s not possible (to win). Anything is possible. It’s not possible if you stop believing and stop trying and stop working. Every game we play is a big challenge and I feel for them (the players) the whole time because I see how much they give. Sometimes it might not look like it, because at the end of the game it’s tough and heads can go. But they should all hold their heads high because they fight, and sometimes it’s not an even fight, but hopefully we’re leveling the fight for them.

“To go out every week, if there’s a disappointment, and come back in ... you see a group ready to go out for their country and themselves. That is an incredible ability, to be able to come with the enthusiasm, the positivity, and the good nature as well. We can learn a lot from other countries, who have a lot of resources, but a lot of people can learn a heck of a lot from the way this team conducts themselves. The Italian people should be incredibly proud of them, but we want to win games of rugby. That’s the biggest boost to confidence.”

Talismanic captain Sergio Parisse, set to eclipse Brian O’Driscoll as the tournament’s most capped player with 66, all of them starts, noted O’Shea was contracted to the end of the 2020 Six Nations but hoped he would stay on for another Rugby World Cup cycle.

“Conor is doing well,” he says. “We know behind the scenes we are growing. Conor is driving everything and I support him.”

As for Saturday, Parisse was looking forward to a personal sixth win against Scotland.

“I really believe we can go there and win,” he says. “I have no shame in saying that.”

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Lineups:

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (captain); Ryan Wilson, Jamie Ritchie, Sam Skinner, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Willem Nel, Stuart McInally, Allan Dell. Reserves: Jake Kerr, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Gary Graham, Josh Strauss, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Chris Harris.

Italy: Jayden Hayward, Angelo Esposito, Luca Morisi, Tommaso Castello, Michele Campagnaro, Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi; Sergio Parisse (captain), Abraham Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Dean Budd, David Sisi, Simone Ferrari, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Jimmy Tuivaiti, Guglielmo Palazzani, Ian McKinley, Edoardo Padovani.

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