Rugby World Cup 2023 gets underway in a little over a month and preparations are set to begin in earnest with Scotland taking on Italy in their first warm up for the big one on Saturday, 29th July.
Murrayfield is the venue for this clash which makes it the first time in Scotland's history that they have played the same opponents at the same venue in back-to-back matches at home after the two sides ended their Six Nations' campaigns there earlier this year.
Both teams will be looking to formulate game-plans and strategies, with each coach also testing the depth of their squads as neither face a straight-forward task in progressing from the pool stages when the World Cup begins on 8th September.
Scotland are housed in Pool B alongside defending champions South Africa as well as the world's number-one ranked side, Ireland, who of course celebrated a Grand Slam success in this year's Six Nations. Tonga and Romania appear to be making up the numbers in the group.
Only the top two progress to the knockout stages while third place in the pool secures qualification for the 2027 World Cup, a minimum requirement for the tier one sides - although one team will not be happy.
Italy face a tall order to progress from Pool A as they are drawn against hosts France and the might of New Zealand - teams that are ranked in second and third behind Ireland - along with minnows Uruguay and Namibia.
|Rugby World Cup 2023
|8th September - 28th October 2023
|How to watch
|France 11/4, New Zealand 11/4, Ireland 9/2, South Africa 9/2, Australia 17/2
It was thought that the World Cup would be Stuart Hogg's swansong in a Scotland shirt but having joined up with Gregor Townsend's training camp for the France extravaganza, the 31-year-old superstar full-back felt his body could no longer handle the demands needed and retired with immediate effect.
Townsend admitted that the news came as a "surprise" but will no doubt have already been planning for scenarios without a man who had done so much to change Scotland's fortunes around.
It would appear that Townsend wishes to test out the strength of his squad on Saturday, as well as perhaps giving his fringe players a chance to stake a claim for World Cup action, as he has made 11 changes to the side that last played against Italy in March.
Rory Darge, who has earned seven caps and previously led Scotland in the Under-20 Six Nations, will captain the side for the first time, while Cameron Henderson and Stafford McDowall will be making their debuts.
Only Sam Skinner, George Turner, Kyle Steyn and Ollie Smith have kept their places from the thrilling Six Nations clash that ended in a 26-14 victory for the home side - a result that secured Townsend's men third place in the standings behind Ireland and France.
|Scotland v Italy
|Scottish Gas Murrayfield, Edinburgh
|15:15, Saturday 29th July, 2023
|How to watch
|Scotland 1/7, Tie 33/1, Italy 9/2
There have been concerns over time of Italy's ability to compete at Six Nations level having finishing in sixth on 18 occasions since 2000, including in each of the last eight tournaments.
Gli Azzurri have won just one game in any of those last eight seasons - a thrilling 22-21 victory against Wales in Cardiff in 2022 - and lost five out of five earlier this year, although head coach Kieran Crowley might feel that his side's performances may have merited a greater reward.
Italy had beaten Australia last November and then gave France an almighty scare in their Six Nations opener, ultimately falling to a valiant 29-24 defeat.
They were competitive for large parts of other games, including at Murrayfield, but perhaps were not quite as clinical as other sides in converting their chances.
Crowley has followed suit in terms of team selection as he has also made 11 changes to his starting XV from his last trip to Scotland, with Tommaso Allan, Pierre Bruno, Luca Morisi and Federico Ruzza - who will captain the side - the four players to have retained their places.
Lorenzo Pani will be making his debut at full-back with Allan switched to fly-half to work in a new partnership with debutant Martin Page-Relo at scrum half.
With both coaches choosing experimental line-ups to assess their wider options before they have to trim their squads down, it is perhaps difficult to fully assess how the game may play out.
Scotland did have their early Six Nations problems against Italy but they have been on the rise in the last few seasons and have not lost to Italy anywhere since 2015, home or away.
Townsend's men of course have home advantage on Saturday and are understandable favourites at 1/7 to chalk up another success, and the visitors are big outsiders at 9/2, despite their recent improvement.
Italy do play an expansive game nowadays, comfortably leading the Six Nations pass charts which included a whopping 208 at Murrayfield, despite having less territory and possession.
Scotland can also seemingly strike from anywhere and the points total has been set markedly higher than the 40 that were scored in March, with over 54 points at 11/10, while under 52 is priced at 1/1 and 52-54 on offer at 10/1.
Blair Kinghorn scored a hat-trick of tries among 21 points accrued in that Six Nations win for Scotland, and he is on offer at 14/1 to score the last try at the weekend, as he starts among the replacements.