Gregor Townsend’s Scotland side kick off this year’s Guinness Six Nations at home – just as they would have liked it.
At BT Murrayfield, they have been unbeatable over the last two Championships and Italy’s visit this year is, to many people’s eyes, a dream start.
And if this is to be the year they break through into a Championship challenge, then this is a game they have to win.
And with Ireland the visitors in round two, it could be the start of something special in 2019 for the Scots.
With that in mind, Townsend has gone for a mix of the old and the new in his matchday 23.
SAM’S THE MAN
Born in Australia, and a former rugby league player – it has been a long and circuitous road to the Guinness Six Nations for Sam Johnson.
But the inside centre has been in fine form for Glasgow Warriors this season and earned his shot – starting with the Italy clash with weekend where he will wear No.12.
Blessed with a powerful running game and a fine pass off either hand, he looks every inch an international No.12 and with clubmate Huw Jones outside him and former Glasgow fly-half Finn Russell inside, should be in comfortable surroundings.
Townsend said: “It’s been a few months in coming for Sam. He was going to be in our squad for the November Tests then got injured the weekend before we came into camp.
“He’s been in Scotland for over three years now, worked his way into the Glasgow team and then became one of their best players.
A mention too for Jake Kerr and Gary Graham who could make their debuts off the bench if introduced.
While neither are debutants, both Jamie Ritchie and Sam Skinner are also named to start this weekend in what is very much the beginning of their international careers.
The openside and blindside flanker respectively, both made their debut in the autumn and are making their Championship bows on Saturday.
Skinner’s ability to cover lock as well has attracted Townsend while Ritchie profits from the hand injury sustained by Hamish Watson.
But neither will be overawed and are part of impressive club sides in rich form this season. Skinner with Exeter Chiefs and Ritchie with Edinburgh.
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Their efforts at No.6 and No.7 will be key for Scotland this weekend for Townsend has made it clear he wants his side to play with pace.
And if they can get it right then they will hope to blow the great Sergio Parisse and Italy away early, and avoid any chance of another upset like back in 2015.
CLUB TO COUNTRY
Club rugby in Scotland has never been in a better place since the game went professional.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors are in the Champions Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever in the same season and both are pushing for a Guinness Pro14 play-off spot.
But while the Warriors have long been challengers, it is Edinburgh’s resurgence under Richard Cockerill that has really caught the eye.
Their pack has been too good for the likes of Montpellier and Toulon this season and that is reflected in Townsend’s selection.
The entire front five are from Edinburgh and it is hooker Stuart McInally who will lead by example.
WP Nel looks back to his best alongside him and, while in seasons gone by the absence of Jonny Gray through injury would have been a real cause for concern, now they can slot in Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis and barely miss a beat.
LEADERS OF MEN
The absence of Gray and John Barclay does deprive Scotland of two of their senior men from a leadership perspective.
But with Greig Laidlaw back from France to skipper the side at No.9 – the Scots are not short of experience.
Not to mention Stuart Hogg – a two-time British & Irish Lion and former Player of the Championship who will lead from the backfield in the No.15 jersey.
Throw in Finn Russell who has taken on more responsibilities in the Top 14 this season with Racing 92, Gilchrist who is a former Scotland captain and McInally who has become one of the stand-out hookers in Europe and Townsend has more than enough to cope.
RESPECT YOUR OPPONENTS
Italy have won twice away from home since joining the Championship – and both times it came in Edinburgh.
It took a late Laidlaw penalty for them to see off Italy last year in Rome – so the challenge has been laid down.
Now it is up to Townsend and co to accept it: “Italy have made life tough for Scotland in every Test match we’ve played. I remember that as a player, as a supporter and as a coach – and they were better than us in most of last season’s contest in Rome. They played with pace, were physical and we had to play really, really well in the final quarter to win.
“Our challenge is to win the physical battle, which is a strength of Italian rugby. We will also have to bring energy and accuracy in order to get our campaign off to a winning start.”