Gregor Townsend insisted Scotland have proved they are capable of being genuine Guinness Six Nations title contenders as he reflected on what might have been following a frustrating bottom half finish.

The Scots showed plenty of promise during an inconsistent campaign but slipped to fourth place in the final standings after being denied a first Triple Crown in 34 years by Saturday’s 17-13 loss to champions Ireland.

Defeat in Dublin was a third from five championship fixtures following a controversial round-two reverse to France and last weekend’s shock loss away to Italy.

Head coach Townsend, who faced questions about his future after a chastening experience in Rome, is adamant his side are making progress.

“We were in contention over the last couple of weeks, which hasn’t been the case before in championships,” said the 50-year-old, who masterminded wins over Wales and England.

“We would have been more in contention if we’d been awarded that try against France, so I think the evidence is there.

“We’re still searching, like any team, to back up performances.

“It is difficult during the Six Nations, every team has found that. And in particular this Six Nations with the competition and the quality of the teams we were up against, if you don’t get your performance spot on then you’re going to be really challenged to win that game.

“We have to be at our very best every time we play.”

Scotland have not won the championship since winning the final Five Nations in 1999.

Huw Jones’ late try offered hope of ending on a high but it proved to be a consolation as Ireland held on to retain their crown.

Co-captain Finn Russell, who kicked eight points at the Aviva Stadium, spoke of mental frailties undermining his country’s development following the largely positive performance.

While head coach Townsend hailed Scotland’s tenacious defensive display as their best in years, he concurred with the assessment of his influential fly-half.

“Yeah, I agree with him, it happens in every sport,” he said.

“The mental side is the same as the strategy, the same as the skill side, the physical side.

“Teams will have moments that go against them – every team in this championship will have had it – and it could be focus, it could be how quickly you reset.

“We’ve had chances to win all our games. The three games we lost were all within a score – that’s even more disappointing for us.

“We felt we should have won against France. We underperformed against Italy but we performed well (against Ireland) and we performed well in the two victories.

“Two wins is not what we set out to do or what we believe this team are capable of achieving.”

Ireland became back-to-back Guinness Six Nations champions by crushing Scotland’s quest for a first Triple Crown in 34 years with a scrappy 17-13 win.

Andy Farrell’s hosts were well below their free-flowing best in Dublin but avoided any major ‘Super Saturday’ drama to retain the championship title.

Andrew Porter’s second-half try fatally broke the resistance of the stubborn Scots to ignite the St Patrick’s weekend celebrations and satisfy an expectant capacity crowd at the Aviva Stadium.

Hooker Dan Sheehan set Ireland on course for glory – and a 10th successive win over Scotland – with an opportunistic first-half score, while Jack Crowley kicked seven points.

A pair of first-half Finn Russell penalties meant Gregor Townsend’s men trailed just 7-6 at the break and he added a late conversion following Huw Jones’ consolation try.

Yet the Scots were powerless to prevent Ireland bouncing back from the disappointment of their dream of successive Grand Slams being agonisingly ended by England last weekend.

Underdogs Scotland crossed the Irish Sea with a slender chance of snatching the title but realistically seeking to secure a first Triple Crown since 1990 following a chastening round-four loss to Italy.

Their mission to rip up the script began in positive fashion thanks to an early Russell penalty before Sheehan was gifted his fifth try of the tournament by George Turner’s overthrown lineout.

The fortunate 13th-minute score, converted by Crowley, did little to settle Irish nerves and the fired-up Scots kept up the pressure with another three points from Russell’s boot.

Farrell’s men were struggling to gain meaningful territory during a cagey opening period punctuated with errors and frequent kicking exchanges amid a subdued atmosphere.

Crowley squandered a long-range penalty to stretch the slender advantage as resolute Scotland remained relatively untroubled, while offering a threat on the counter attack.

Ireland, who had been forced to replace injured full-back Hugo Keenan with Jordan Larmour just before kick-off, trudged down the tunnel leading by only a single point and with major room for improvement.

Scotland head coach Townsend acknowledged pre-match that his side needed to produce “something special” to spoil the Irish party and bounce back from a dismal display in Rome.

Crowley made their uphill task slightly harder with a straightforward penalty before the visitors received a major reprieve when Tadhg Furlong’s apparent touch down was chalked off following a lengthy review as referee Matthew Carley deemed the ball had been dislodged.

Heroic last-ditch defending was the only thing preventing a rampant home side showing renewed purpose from fully taking control of the contest.

Scotland flanker Andy Christie superbly halted the weaving Calvin Nash with the try line in touching distance before rusty Ireland replacement Garry Ringrose inexplicably fumbled.

Ringrose, making his first appearance of the tournament following a shoulder injury, atoned with a lung-busting intercept run which led to Ireland’s crucial second try.

Robbie Henshaw was adjudged to have been held up on the line in the immediate aftermath before Porter subsequently powered over from a tap-and-go penalty following a yellow card for Ewan Ashman.

Supporters responded with a rousing rendition of the Fields of Athenry, fully believing the job was done.

However, home fans were forced to endure a nervy final couple of minutes after replacement fly-half Harry Byrne was sin binned for a head-on-head challenge on Russell and Scotland centre Jones broke clear to touch down.

Ireland duly avoided any further issues to jubilantly celebrate a fifth championship title in 11 years – and sixth overall – to underline their status as the northern hemisphere’s leading nation.

Gregor Townsend admits Scotland will have to “do something special” in Dublin as he challenged them to score at least 20 points against Ireland and give themselves a fighting chance of a first Triple Crown since 1990.

The Scots are heading to the Irish capital looking to save face after a shock defeat in Italy last weekend all-but ended their hopes of winning the championship and left them staring at the possibility of finishing fifth if results go against them on Saturday.

Townsend is braced for a formidable test against a side the Scots have lost to in each of their last nine meetings – including a chastening 36-14 defeat at the World Cup just five months ago.

“We know how tough it’s going to be,” he said. “They’re one of the top two teams in the world and at home they’ve been virtually unbeatable the last few years so it’s going to require something special from our players.

“We’ve got to accept that they’ll score points on Saturday. I think before (losing 23-22 to) England they were averaging 30 points a game, so it will be a test for our defence, and we have to score points.

“We have to get to 20 or more, which will be tough but we believe we can do that against any team.”

Townsend conceded there is a sense of regret that Scotland – who have two wins out of four so far – are not heading to Ireland with a genuine chance of winning the title.

“The frustration is that we’re not going to Dublin on the back of four wins,” he said.

“We feel we had a win taken away from us against France, and obviously Italy deserved their win but we feel we could have been better that day.

“But we have this game ahead of us to show our best performance of the season.

“We’re still playing for something, not just a place in the table, it’s for a trophy (the Triple Crown), and also we’re playing one of the best teams in the world so that’s got to inspire us to deliver our best rugby.

“It’s weird to think we’re the only team that can win the Triple Crown but the focus is on the performance.

“We know we have to play our best rugby this week. We’re away to Ireland and it’s the ultimate challenge in the game right now. The huge motivator for us is to try and deliver our best rugby of the season.”

Despite last weekend’s disappointment, Townsend has opted to make just two changes, with Glasgow centre Stafford McDowall replacing Cam Redpath and first-choice scrum-half Ben White returning at the expense of George Horne.

The head coach is adamant there is no need for a wholesale overhaul of the team.

“If you suddenly change what you’re doing because of one defeat or one performance that had some negative elements then you’re forgetting what went on beforehand,” he said.

“Before that 20-minute period (in the second half in Italy) when we lost our focus, we played a lot of good rugby and we played a lot of good rugby leading up to the Italy game.

“We know we have to deliver our best performance of the season on Saturday to come away with a positive result and we believe in the players we’ve selected.”

Townsend was heavily criticised after the Italy defeat, but he dismissed any notion that he had felt the weight of the world on his shoulders since returning from Rome.

“No, I feel massive responsibility and privilege being in this job,” he said on Thursday. “It’s a huge purpose in my life.

“I’ve got a fantastic coaching staff and a great group of players around me and I love being in this role. It’s disappointing when you don’t get your best performance but there’s another game to work towards this weekend.”

Ireland have stuck with the starting XV narrowly beaten by England for Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations title decider against Scotland in Dublin.

Andy Farrell’s men will retain the championship crown by avoiding defeat or securing two losing bonus points against the Scots at the Aviva Stadium.

Calvin Nash has overcome the head knock which forced him off inside five minutes of the last-gasp 23-22 loss at Twickenham to retain his place on the right wing.

Garry Ringrose, who is yet to feature in this year’s championship following a shoulder issue, is named among the replacements.

Farrell’s bench shows a five-three split of forwards and backs after the six-two selection in south-west London backfired because of head injuries suffered by Nash and his replacement Ciaran Frawley.

Versatile back Frawley drops out of the 23, replaced by fly-half Harry Byrne, while lock Iain Henderson makes way to accommodate the returning Ringrose.

Although Ireland’s pursuit of successive Grand Slams was ruined last weekend, they remain in a strong position at the top of the championship table, having racked up four bonus points and a vastly-superior points difference on each of their rivals.

A defeat without any bonus points could also be sufficient for the title, but would be dependent on the result of England’s trip to France in the final match of ‘Super Saturday’.

Gregor Townsend’s Scots are also mathematically still in the mix. However, following a shock loss to Italy, securing the Triple Crown looks to be the extent of their realistic ambitions.

Leinster trio Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong once again pack down in Ireland’s front row, ahead of locks Joe McCarthy and Tadhg Beirne.

Captain Peter O’Mahony retains the blindside flanker role, despite his costly second-half yellow card against England and strong competition from Ryan Baird, with Josh van der Flier at openside and Caelan Doris lining up at number eight.

Jamison Gibson-Park and Jack Crowley continue as the half-back pairing, while Bundee Aki partners Robbie Henshaw in midfield.

Left wing James Lowe, who claimed Ireland’s two tries at Twickenham, and full-back Hugo Keenan complete the starting line-up.

Ireland have won 13 of the last 14 meetings with Scotland, including nine in a row following a decisive 36-14 pool-stage success at last year’s Rugby World Cup in France.

Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Baird, Jack Conan and Conor Murray join Byrne and Ringrose on the bench.

Ireland team: H Keenan (Leinster); C Nash (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Lowe (Leinster); J Crowley (Munster), J Gibson-Park (Leinster); A Porter (Leinster), D Sheehan (Leinster), T Furlong (Leinster), J McCarthy (Leinster), T Beirne (Munster), P O’Mahony (Munster, capt), J van der Flier (Leinster), C Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), F Bealham (Connacht), R Baird (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), H Byrne (Leinster), G Ringrose (Leinster).

Glasgow centre Stafford McDowall is set for his second Scotland appearance after being selected to start Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations match away to title-chasing Ireland.

The 26-year-old made his debut against Italy in a World Cup warm-up match last summer before being cut from Gregor Townsend’s squad for the tournament in France.

The recent injury sustained by regular starter Sione Tuipulotu paved the way for Cam Redpath to make a rare start in last weekend’s damaging 31-29 defeat away to the Azzurri.

However, McDowall, who has been in good form for Warriors this term, has been preferred to Redpath, who drops to the bench in one of two changes to the team that started in Rome.

The other alteration sees first-choice scrum-half Ben White return in place of George Horne after the Toulon number nine was rested for the match at the Stadio Olimpico.

Backs Horne and Redpath both drop to the bench, with head coach Gregor Townsend reverting to a 5/3 split after going with a 6/2 last weekend.

Veteran prop Rory Sutherland, a late call-up to the squad ahead of the Italy game, is in line for his first outing of the championship after being named among the subs.

Fellow loosehead Alec Hepburn drops out of the 23 along with former captain Jamie Ritchie.

Grant Gilchrist has told his Scotland colleagues to embrace the pressure of having to produce a positive response against Ireland on Saturday as they bid to banish “a dark couple of days” following their damaging Guinness Six Nations defeat in Italy last weekend.

The Scots have been heavily criticised after losing 31-29 in Rome and squandering the chance to set up a title shootout with Andy Farrell’s side in Dublin.

Instead Gregor Townsend’s team are now chasing a face-saving result away to “arguably the best team in the world at the minute” in order to avoid potentially finishing as low as fifth in the championship.

“We should feel under pressure,” said veteran second-rower Gilchrist. “Every time you put on the jersey you should feel under pressure, nothing for me changes.

“Through our own play we’ve set the bar a lot higher than any other Scotland team that I’ve ever been part of and that pressure is a privilege.

“It’s a privilege to wear the jersey, it’s a privilege to play in a team that’s good enough to be expecting to get huge results and to win all these big games.

“We’re not going to shy away from pressure. Pressure comes with big games and big moments and that’s why we play the game.

“We know the strength of the opposition, Ireland are arguably the best team in the world at the minute. With their home record, you can’t pick a tougher test but that’s a huge excitement for us.

“We know we’re going to have to be at our very best but that’s what we strive to be anyway. We need to embrace the pressure, embrace the challenge – I don’t think there’s any bigger challenge – and go out and deliver a performance.”

Gilchrist, 33, admitted the defeat in Rome was a tough one to swallow.

“In the immediacy, it was a dark couple of days,” he said. “No one cares more than the guys in that changing room and we’re devastated with how the game went and the opportunity we let slip by.

“It’s not a case of being able to move on too quickly but we had a really good day on Monday going through it and players taking a lot more responsibility.

“It was on us to look at solutions and come up with a plan so that we could put it behind us and it was great to get out on the grass on Tuesday and start putting things in place for what’s going to be… well there’s no bigger challenge.”

Hours after their own defeat, there was further reason for Scottish regret when Ireland’s surprise loss to England effectively meant Townsend’s team had blown a golden chance to go into the last weekend of the championship knowing victory would bring them title glory for the first time in 25 years.

“You couldn’t give me more of a blow than losing a game of rugby for my country that I know we were more than good enough to win, but because of our own doing we allowed ourselves to get into a game where we came out on the wrong side of the result,” said Gilchrist.

“Yes, it was a double blow (with Ireland also losing) but the first blow was enough for me. I couldn’t be more devastated at the fact that we didn’t take care of what we were doing and we knew all that stuff (the result at Twickenham) was out of our control anyway.”

Huw Jones batted away any notion that Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend was under pressure after Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations implosion in Italy.

The Scots blew their chance to set up a shootout for the title with Ireland in Dublin next weekend as they went down 31-29 in Rome despite holding a 22-10 lead after an encouraging opening half an hour.

It was the Azzurri’s first Six Nations victory at home for 11 years and their first in the championship since winning in Wales two years ago.

The surprise defeat cranks up the heat on Townsend just five months after the Scots – widely deemed to have one of the best squads in their history at present – suffered a second consecutive World Cup group-stage exit on the 50-year-old’s watch.

However, Jones claimed the players should carry the can for the debacle in the Eternal City and appeared irritated by the suggestion that it would place the long-serving head coach under renewed scrutiny.

“I don’t know about that,” said the experienced centre. “We’re all behind the coaches, we’re all behind Gregor.

“We love the way we play, the way we want to play. We have a good plan.

“When we execute it, it’s brilliant and we play some good rugby. I don’t think this defeat was on Gregor, I think it was on the players.

“We didn’t execute our plan well enough and Italy played well.”

Scotland looked in control after three tries in the opening half hour from Zander Fagerson, Kyle Steyn and Pierre Schoeman. But a disallowed George Horne touchdown – after a foul in the build-up by Schoeman was detected – two minutes into the second half when they led 22-16 proved pivotal.

Italy, who had scored in the first half through Martin Page-Relo, turned the screw with tries from debutant Louis Lynagh and substitute Stephen Varney, and some excellent kicking under pressure from Paolo Garbisi took the game away from the Scots before Sam Skinner’s late try gave them a glimmer of what ultimately proved false hope.

Saturday was one of Jones’ most soul-destroying days in a Scotland jersey, and he said: “We hate losing. It’s really tough to take, hugely disappointing.

“We spoke during the week before the game about having our best performance, having an 80-minute performance, but we were really poor in the second half. We let the game slip away from us.

“Credit to Italy, they were good, but we had that try chalked off and then conceded four or five penalties in a row. We couldn’t get back in the game and they managed that period better than us.

“Our discipline wasn’t good enough. We didn’t react to that try-swing well enough.

“We are gutted with our performance. Across the board we managed it badly. The leadership and the processes and the communication was good but we’ve all got to look at ourselves and the actions we took.”

While the manner of the defeat itself was bad enough, there was further reason for Scottish frustration later in the day when Ireland’s surprise defeat to England meant Townsend’s men had effectively squandered a golden chance to set up a last-day title shootout with Ireland.

Had they won in Rome, they would have been able to secure a first championship triumph since 1999 with victory in Dublin next weekend.

Instead – although still with an unrealistic mathematical chance of the title – they head to the Irish capital scrambling to avoid a demoralising two-win, bottom-half finish from a campaign that previously promised so much.

Jones admitted it felt like Scotland had let a huge opportunity slip from their grasp.

“Yes, definitely,” he said. “It is really disappointing.

“We wanted to get a win and then go to Dublin next week full of confidence and try to do something but this obviously takes the wind out of the sails a bit.

“We’ve got to react, we’ve got to react quickly and prepare for another game.

“We’ll go through a range of emotions but we’ve got to review it objectively and then turn our attention to Ireland.”

Frustrated Gregor Townsend refused to entertain questions about his future after Scotland suffered a calamitous second-half collapse on their way to a costly 31-29 Guinness Six Nations defeat in Italy.

The Scots arrived in Rome aiming to enhance their bid for a first top-two finish in the championship this century, while they still held out some hope of winning the title. However, their loss in the Eternal City, allied to England’s win over Ireland, leaves them staring at the prospect of a bottom-half finish.

Things looked to be going well for Townsend’s team when they led 14-3 and 22-10 during the first half following tries by props Zander Fagerson and Pierre Schoeman and wing Kyle Steyn. A disallowed George Horne try early in the second half following a foul by Schoeman proved pivotal though.

Italy, who had scored in the first half through Martin Page-Relo, turned the match in their favour with tries from debutant Louis Lynagh and substitute Stephen Varney. And some excellent kicking under pressure from Paolo Garbisi took the game away from the Scots before Sam Skinner’s late try gave them a glimmer of hope.

Scotland incredibly still have an outside chance of finishing in the top two as they prepare to head to Ireland for their final match next weekend, but losing to Italy for the first time since 2015 represents a major setback for Townsend just five months after an underwhelming display at the World Cup brought pool-stage elimination.

When the head coach, who is contracted until 2026, was asked if he felt his job was under threat after his side became the first to lose a Six Nations match in Rome since 2013, he said: “I’m not going to answer that question.

“We’re disappointed with the result today, but we know this team have come on since the World Cup.

“We can look at this result and be really disappointed, but I’ve been really proud of how this team’s played during the championship so far.

“I believe in this group. You can look at results and say: ‘We’ve lost to Italy, this team aren’t going to take that next step’. Or you can look at where we’ve grown since the World Cup.

“I still believe the performances the players are putting in can show we can beat anybody.

“But if we take our eye off the ball for a period of time, we can be beaten. That’s what happened today.”

Townsend admitted Scotland were architects of their own downfall – although he did acknowledge a superb performance from Italy, who won their first championship match since their victory in Wales two years ago.

“The credit has to go to Italy as well,” said Townsend. “There are two teams that play the game, not just one. I thought that Italy were very good even in the first half where we dominated most of the possession.

“But our actions after the try that was disallowed weren’t good enough. We gave Italy a way into the game through penalties and field position. If you give that to any team in the Six Nations, they’re going to take the points, which they did.

“It’s very frustrating that we didn’t get that try, which is down to our execution, and after that it was even more frustrating.”

Townsend admitted the result “hurts a lot” but he remains steadfast in his belief that Scotland are continuing to make progress overall under his stewardship.

“We won in Wales for the first time since 2002 this year,” he pointed out. “We retained the Calcutta Cup. We had a decision (over what would have been a match-winning try) go against us in the game with France.

“This result is very disappointing. We’ve lost against a good Italy side, one of the best Italian teams I’ve seen. But today is not what defines this team.”

Scotland’s Guinness Six Nations campaign unravelled in disastrous fashion in Rome as they crashed to a first defeat against Italy since 2015.

Gregor Townsend’s side looked set to tighten their grip on second place – and keep themselves on course for a first top-two finish this century – when they held 14-3 and 22-10 leads in the first half following tries from props Zander Fagerson and Pierre Schoeman either side of a score from Kyle Steyn.

However, the Scots completely lost their way after the interval as they fell to a 31-29 loss against an Italian side who – despite several encouraging displays that helped draw a capacity crowd to the Stadio Olimpico – had not won a Six Nations match since victory in Wales two years ago.

This chastening defeat in the Eternal City is sure to crank up the heat on head coach Townsend five months after exiting the World Cup at the group-stage.

Italy got the chance to get the scoreboard ticking over just seconds into the match when Scotland were penalised on their own 22 immediately from the kick-off. Paolo Garbisi saw the ball fall off the tee while the clock was running but the fly-half kept his composure to re-tee and send his kick between the posts.

Scotland soon gained a foothold, however, and they got themselves in front in the sixth minute when Fagerson powered his way over from close range after a sustained spell of pressure inside the Italian 22. Finn Russell converted.

The visitors crossed the whitewash again five minutes later when they worked the ball out to the right and Blair Kinghorn fed Steyn, who bundled his way past two Italians to cross the line. Russell converted again.

The Azzurri summoned a swift response as scrum-half Martin Page-Relo lobbed a clever kick over the top and centre Juan Ignacio Brex ran gleefully over just to the left of the posts in the 15th minute. Garbisi converted.

Shortly after Russell kicked a close-range penalty, Scotland scored their third try of the match in the 28th minute as Schoeman finished things off after being fed by George Turner in a driving maul. Russell’s conversion drifted wide.

Italy finished the first half strongly and reduced their interval deficit to 22-16 with a couple of penalties kicked by Garbisi and then Page-Relo, who was on target from close to the half-way line.

Scotland thought they had extended their advantage two minutes into the second period when scrum-half George Horne – on his first start since the 2019 World Cup – bolted over after excellent play by Huw Jones to release him but it was subsequently chalked off after Schoeman was adjudged to have committed a foul in the build-up.

The prop’s needless indiscretion was to prove hugely pivotal. Just two minutes later, Italy closed to within a point when debutant Louis Lynagh – son of former Australia international Michael – ran on to Garbisi’s kick-through and darted over the line. Garbisi – with the chance to edge his team in front – saw his conversion attempt come back off the post.

The Scots found themselves in trouble in the 57th minute when the Italians got themselves in front as replacement scrum-half Stephen Varney found a gap between Andy Christie and Jack Dempsey to nudge his way over. This time Garbisi was on target.

Garbisi then scored a huge penalty from distance to put the hosts nine points ahead with seven minutes to play, placing the Scots in a state of desperation.

Replacement lock Sam Skinner – denied a match-winning try against France a month previously – pushed over with two minutes left and Russell converted to bring the Scots back to within two points and set up a tense finish.

Townsend’s team were unable to find another score, however, and – as the Azzurri celebrated a rare and deserved victory – the Scotland players slumped to their knees in abject despair as a campaign had that promised so much was reduced to rubble in Rome.

Rory Darge feels Italy’s Stadio Olimpico would be “a nice place” for Duhan van der Merwe to become Scotland’s record try-scorer – but the co-captain stressed that his team’s focus is solely on leaving Rome with another Guinness Six Nations victory.

The Scots have won two of their three championship matches so far to sit second in the table – albeit six points adrift of Grand Slam-chasing Ireland – going into the penultimate round of fixtures.

While the priority for Gregor Townsend’s side is to get the points that will keep them on course for a first top-two finish in the Six Nations era, the fixture has added spice because Van der Merwe goes into it with 26 international tries to his name – one shy of the county’s record-holder Stuart Hogg.

A score or two by the South Africa-born wing on Saturday would see him join or overtake the former full-back, who will be at the Stadio Olimpico to support his old colleagues after completing a charity cycle to the Eternal City in aid of the My Name’5 Doddie foundation.

Back-rower Darge said: “I know one of Duhi’s tries in particular (his second one against England) was off our defensive efforts and then the turnover attack, so if we do get ourselves right, then we can put guys like that in.

“He’s obviously a great finisher. Sometimes you only need to give him half a chance and he comes away with a chance, so it (the record) could happen.

“It would be a nice place for him to do it but I don’t think he’ll have too much of his mind set on that.

“He’ll just be focused on his role, and he might come away with a couple, but we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure Italy will put us under a lot of pressure.”

Darge insisted Edinburgh wing Van der Merwe has remained as humble as ever in the wake of the Calcutta Cup hat-trick a fortnight ago that put him on the cusp of Hogg’s record.

“Duhi’s always the same,” said the Glasgow forward. “Around training and around camp, he’s always quite laidback but when he gets out there he’s a Test-match animal, and it’s class to be able to play with him.”

Darge’s only previous experience of playing at Stadio Olimpico was a 33-22 victory two years ago in front of a crowd of 41,214.

This time, the famous arena in north-west Rome – used predominantly for football – is set to be full to capacity, with 70,000 tickets having been sold on the back of encouraging championship performances from the Azzurri against England and France.

“Italy are a really good side,” said Darge. “We saw that against France, and they’re obviously playing at home where they’ll have a really good atmosphere and good backing.

“The Stadio Olimpico is different (to other Six Nations venues) but the Scotland fans always travel well for this one, so that will be massive for us.

“It’s a long walk from the changing room but it’s a cool stadium. Inside the changing room, on the walk in, with all the jerseys on the wall and stuff like that, there’s a lot of history behind it, so it’s a cool place to be playing rugby.”

Gregor Townsend is desperate to see Scotland hit their maximum performance levels over the next two weekends as they bid to secure a first top-two finish in the Six Nations era.

The Scots are second in the championship table – a point ahead of England and three above France – as they prepare for matches away to Italy this Saturday and Grand Slam-chasing Ireland the following week.

Townsend has seen his team defeat Wales and England while going agonisingly close to defeating the French, but he still feels they are yet to hit top gear for any sustained period.

“Happy-ish,” he said, reflecting on the campaign so far. “You’ve obviously got to be delighted for the team to beat England and retain the Calcutta Cup.

“But in terms of performance, we’re a little bit away from what we know we can deliver. The first 45 minutes against Wales is probably still the best we’ve played.

“We had elements of control throughout much of the France game and for the last 60 minutes of the England game. But there’s still a lot more to come from us.

“We’re delighted with how the guys trained yesterday, a real physical session. The non-23 trained really well and really tested us. So the guys are in a good position to deliver their best performances over the next two weeks. That’s all we’re working towards.”

Scotland know that even if they win in Rome on Saturday, it may not be enough to stop Ireland securing the championship against England later in the day. If the Irish slip up at Twickenham, it could pave the way for a last weekend title shootout between Ireland and Scotland in Dublin.

“We can only do what we have to do this weekend which is deliver a winning performance and see where we are after that,” said Townsend.

“We’re the first game so I’m sure we’ll be watching the other game with interest.

“We’re into the last two rounds of the championship still in the mix, although it’s an outside chance for the championship. There’s a lot to play for this weekend and again in Dublin.”

Asked if a second-place finish would represent a good outcome for the Scots, who have never finished higher than third this century, Townsend, said: “I don’t know. Anything to build on what we’ve done in the last few years would be an improvement.

“We’re focused on the performance and we know that at times it’s been better since the World Cup and last year’s Six Nations but still not where we believe this team can be.”

Townsend has made three changes to his team for the match in the Stadio Olimpico.

Regular scrum-half Ben White has been rested following a busy schedule with Toulon, paving the way for Glasgow’s George Horne to make his first start since the 2019 World Cup and the experienced Ali Price – who has played no part in the championship so far – is promoted to the bench.

In-form Saracens back-rower Andy Christie replaces Jamie Ritchie, who drops to the bench, while Bath’s Cam Redpath takes the place of influential Glasgow centre Sione Tuipulotu, who is out for the remainder of the tournament with a knee injury.

“We feel Ben has played a lot of rugby, he’s only missed one game since October,” said Townsend, explaining the changes at scrum-half.

“Going back and forward to Toulon during this period, something’s got to give in terms of a rest at some point, and we feel this week is the best week for him to recharge.

“And also with the form and experience of the two other scrum-halves in our squad who have been training really well. George has been on the bench and Ali has been excellent during this period so we want to give those two an opportunity.”

Joe Marler is desperate to help England wrestle back the Calcutta Cup on Saturday after growing exasperated with Scotland’s recent dominance of the fixture.

The 33-year-old prop grew up in an era when the Red Rose firmly held the upper hand over the Scots and he was on the winning side four times in a row after first playing in the highly-charged showdown in 2014.

The tables have turned since 2018, however. Scotland have lost only one of their last six matches against the Auld Enemy under Gregor Townsend and go into this weekend’s match buoyed by having won each of the last three.

That situation rankles with Marler, who is intent on ensuring England are celebrating on enemy territory come Saturday evening.

“It would just be nice to be on the winning end of it for once because it has been so long since we have,” he said at Murrayfield on the eve of the match.

“Obviously we had 2020, but the continued dominance from Scotland over us – it has been a long time now.

“From the start, we hadn’t lost to Scotland. Then the 2018 game the tide started to turn, the players that have come through in the Scottish side, you go, ‘Hang on, they have got some world-class operators now’.

“And it does shift the mindset slightly coming in as underdogs.

“The last few years without that cup, seeing Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw, that video of them with their shirts off and singing with the cup.

“I wish I could be doing that rather than watching it. Or that famous Finn Russell photo where he’s got his Spiderman hands up and he’s loving it.

“That stirs passion in me to go, ‘I want that cup’, and I know a number of the other boys in the team want that cup back as well.”

Marler is pleased to still be in a position to help improve England’s record against Scotland after wondering if the World Cup last autumn might signal the end of his international career before Steve Borthwick assured him he still had a part to play.

“It’s almost like an addiction,” he said of his ongoing involvement with the national team. “I want to be part of a winning England team, creating new stories, creating new memories.

“I thought the World Cup was going to be my last opportunity at that, but Steve rang to ask if I’m still hungry.

“He asked if I had the desire to still crack on because he needed to blood some new players and move into the next cycle, but he also needed guys around to help with that.

“I asked my wife first but for me, yeah, it’s that addiction to be part of a winning England team and helping those young guys come through. That’s why I keep coming back.”

England will be led out at Murrayfield on Saturday by captain Jamie George, who lost his mother, Jane, a week last Wednesday following a short battle with lung cancer.

Marler, who will start on the bench, has been hugely impressed with the way his friend and fellow 33-year-old front-rower has dealt with the situation.

“Jamie has been incredible,” said the Harlequins prop. “I remember talking to him a few weeks before coming into camp, and he was talking about the captaincy being offered to him and he wasn’t sure whether he was going to take it up with things going on with his mum.

“Having known Jane since I was 16, 17, coming through the age groups with Jamie, I said, ‘Mate, just flip it and tell her you’re not doing it and see how upset, disappointed and gutted she’d be if you didn’t do it. You’ve got enough support around you in terms of the senior group to help you with it and you’re the best bloke for it, so let’s crack on and do it.’

“I’m pleased that he did. It has been tough since we found out about Jane, but he’s shown huge strength, and vulnerability which is great for the whole group, especially the youngsters to see that.

“He’s very much thinking, ‘I want to come up here, get the job done’. He’s dealt with it incredibly well.”

Gregor Townsend says Scotland’s sole focus is on winning their “biggest game of the season” against England this weekend and maintaining their recent dominance of the Calcutta Cup.

The Scots go into Saturday’s showdown with their bitter rivals knowing they will almost certainly require a victory to stay in contention for the Guinness Six Nations title after their controversial defeat by France last time out.

Townsend is adamant that any lingering injustice from ‘trygate’ a fortnight ago has been parked and that any talk of contending for the title can remain firmly on the backburner until after their high-stakes encounter with Steve Borthwick’s side.

“When you’re coming in off the back of a defeat, you have to bounce back with a victory,” said Townsend, when asked on Thursday how the France defeat has left his side’s title prospects.

“You’re not really thinking about the championship. We’ll see where we are on Saturday.

“The full focus is on this game because it’s our most important game of the season.

“It’s the most important game for our supporters and we also play for a trophy, in amongst the Triple Crown and other trophies.

“But this is one that we’re focused on more than the others. That probably shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

“It’s history. It’s emotion. We’ve seen the impact this game has on Scottish supporters when we do manage to get a victory in this fixture. That’ll drive us on Saturday.”

Having beaten England only three times in 27 attempts between 1990 and 2018, the Scots now find themselves going into this weekend’s fixture on the back of a three-game winning run and having lost only one of their last six meetings with their old foes.

Townsend, who was accustomed to regular defeats against England in his time as a player, admits his team’s recent burst of Calcutta Cup success has given them increased belief going into Saturday’s match.

“Yes, for sure,” he said. “The game in 2018 (Scotland’s first win over England in a decade) has certainly given the players confidence when they’ve taken on England in the last few games.

“But what’s most relevant is the game you’ve just played, the things you have to work on to be a better team, and the threats that England bring.

“This England team is different to the one we faced 12 months ago but ultimately it’s just about delivering in the 80 minutes on the day.”

Townsend has made three changes to the side that started the 20-16 defeat by France, with Glasgow wing Kyle Steyn returning after missing Les Bleus game when his wife went into labour and Toulouse full-back Blair Kinghorn back after sitting out the first two matches with a knee injury.

Kyle Rowe and Harry Paterson, who deputised in the absence of the two experienced backs, drop out of the squad altogether.

The most notable change is in the back row where Edinburgh flanker Jamie Ritchie, who recently lost the captaincy and then was then left out of the 23 for the France game, returns to the number six jersey in place of Matt Fagerson, who is dropped from the squad.

“Jamie has really accepted the challenge that was there about a month ago that there’s increased competition in the back-row and for that reason he was no longer going to be captain,” explained Townsend.

“But since that conversation he’s played two games for Edinburgh and one for Scotland in Cardiff and he’s played well.

“We believe this game will suit his strengths and his experience he can bring to the team as well will be a boost.”

World Rugby has no plans to issue any public explanation regarding the controversial decision not to award Scotland what would have been a match-winning try in last Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations defeat by France at Murrayfield, the PA news agency understands.

The Scots – trailing 20-16 – thought they had secured victory when replacement lock Sam Skinner pushed through and appeared to ground the ball on the line under a ruck of bodies as the clock ticked past the 80-minute mark.

Referee Nic Berry’s on-field decision was “no try”, and after several minutes of high drama while footage was reviewed from various angles, TMO Brian MacNeice, having initially suggested he could see the ball on the ground, advised that there was “no conclusive evidence” to change the original call, much to the hosts’ dismay.

“I just don’t understand how the referee didn’t see it,” former Scotland international Craig Chalmers told PA on Monday. “He should have got in closer to it and put his hands in and had a better look.”

Head coach Gregor Townsend was similarly bewildered by the process that led to the try not being awarded. “I don’t understand the rationale,” he said in his post-match media briefing on Saturday.

“When you see the pictures, and when you also see the conversation, they have already said between them that the ball has been placed on the tryline.”

When asked last weekend if Scotland would be seeking further explanation from World Rugby, Townsend said: “It doesn’t really matter.

“We’ll get feedback, we do regularly, and that’ll be one of some incidents we’ll ask for clarification on, but it doesn’t change the outcome, unfortunately.”

Townsend regularly liaises with World Rugby regarding issues arising from matches and he wrote to the governing body after the France game, as he had done the previous week when seeking clarification over the number of penalties that went against his side in their victory away to Wales.

The head coach spoke with referee Berry after the France match and communication lines remain open between Scottish Rugby and the sport’s governing body, but Scotland are not demanding or expecting an apology or an admission that a mistake was made regarding Skinner’s disallowed try.

Despite the ferocity of the backlash, World Rugby will be sticking to their stance of not commenting publicly on specific officials’ decisions and are not expected to issue any clarification to clear the situation up in the public domain.

Although there remains a deep sense of injustice among Scotland’s players, coaches and supporters, the furore surrounding Saturday’s pivotal last-gasp flashpoint appears to be subsiding.

Gregor Townsend felt Scotland were robbed of victory over France as he expressed bewilderment that the officials failed to award them a try in the last action of a dramatic Murrayfield showdown.

Les Bleus claimed a 20-16 win in Edinburgh to get their Guinness Six Nations campaign up and running – but only after referee Nic Berry and TMO Brian MacNeice spent several minutes deliberating over whether home substitute Sam Skinner had grounded the ball on the try-line before deciding that it had been held up by the boot of French replacement Yoram Moefana.

Scotland’s supporters, players and staff – having seen pictures of the incident on the big screen – were convinced they were about to be awarded a match-winning try, and the officials were loudly booed by the home crowd when they stuck with the original call not to give the score.

“We were celebrating in the coaches’ box having seen the pictures of the ball being placed down on the tryline after having been on the player’s boot,” said head coach Townsend, visibly angered.

“That was also after hearing the communication to the referee from the TMO to say that the ball started on the foot and then went on the ground.

“The ref then says, ‘I can also see that (ball) on the ground’ then their last interaction was ‘hang on, let’s look at that other angle….yeah, it’s inconclusive now, stick with your on-field decision’.

“It was TMO-driven. If the referee is seeing the pictures we were all seeing in the stadium, maybe it’s on his shoulders as well to say, ‘that’s the ball down, that’s a try’. But the TMO was the one who changed his mind and said, ‘stick with your on-field decision.’

“I don’t understand the rationale. When you see the pictures, and when you also see the conversation, they have already said between them that the ball has been placed on the tryline.”

The Scots led for most of the match after taking a seventh-minute lead through Ben White.

France, who also scored a first-half try through Gael Fickou, managed to survive 10 minutes with 14 men after Uini Atonio was sin-binned just before the break and eventually got themselves ahead for the first time in the 70th minute through Louis Bielle-Biarrey’s try.

“I’m absolutely gutted for the players,” said Townsend. “The way the game was going in the second half, I didn’t think there would be any points scored at one stage – we were in control.

“But we did make an error that led to a scrum that led to a try. At the time, I thought it was going to be really difficult to score the required five points.

“It was then a fantastic effort to win the ball back, for Kyle Rowe to make his break and for Finn (Russell) to win the ball back and set us up on the tryline.

“The emotions straight after that when I saw the pictures were, ‘what a fantastic win, what a team to come back.

“To play so well, go behind and come back, what a great victory for our supporters, then it’s taken away from you.

“It’s sport, we know that, and we have to be better. That’s why you play and coach – to win but also to get better. We have to make sure we take winning and losing out of the hands of referees and TMOs.”

Asked if he felt the officials had done their jobs properly, Townsend said: “I’ll leave that to you guys to decide.

“All I can say is that we were celebrating a win, our players and a lot of our supporters were by the pictures we saw. We could hear the conversations.

“Gavin Hastings (former Scotland international) was in front of us, and the media were turning round a few times as well to ask, and I’m saying, ‘yeah, it’s a try’.

“I’ll leave it to you guys to make any comment more than that, but we believe it was a try.”

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