Scotland head to Rome on Saturday for a clash which will not only be pivotal to their Six Nations campaign (as it invariably is against Italy), but also to the future of head coach Gregor Townsend.

He is unlikely to get his jotters on Monday morning if his side come up short, but he will look like a dead-man-walking during the team’s final two championship matches against France at home on March 8 and Wales away six days later.

Townsend’s side can win next weekend. In fact, they should win. Man-for-man, they are better than the opposition. Most of their players are used to operating at a higher level on a weekly basis, and they have won their last seven matches against the Azzurri home and away.

Moreover, despite the general feel of exasperation about the plight of the national side since their World Cup flop, they have not played that badly in their two matches in this Six Nations. They got themselves in positions to win both encounters only for a lack of composure at key moments, plus a couple of badly exposed technical failings, to cost them dearly.

It is a familiar story – but worth pointing out that we have not had any right to expect positive outcomes against either Ireland or England since before the turn of the century. In short, two losing bonus points at this stage is probably just better than par at this stage of the championship.

So, why all the doom and gloom? Well, you will have had to have had your head buried in the sand this last month if you don’t know the answer to that. But the problem is not just that Finn Russell is missing, but also the reasons why he is missing.

While the SRU and Townsend doubled down this week on their representation of Russell as a selfish maverick unprepared to fit in with the general team ethos, their insistence on playing heroes and villains, and on making sure they get the last word, has done nothing to alleviate concerns that there is not a genuine two-way relationship between the guys on the pitch and the guys calling the shots. Russell may have handled it badly when he stormed out of camp less than two weeks before the kick-off of the Six Nations, but the determination to win the argument at all costs appears to be a self-harming exercise.

Townsend is still Scotland’s most successful coach based on results since Ian McGeechan’s first spell in charge between 1988 and 1993, but his two recent losses means his win percentage is now 53.03 per cent, and if his side lose on Saturday he will fall behind Vern Cotter (52.78 per cent), the man he was rushed in to the job in place of.

The key here is that Cotter inherited a basket case from Scott Johnson, and despite a couple of hiccups along the way, he built belief and a sense of purpose in the side to take them to within a dodgy refereeing decision of a World Cup semi-final in 2015.

Townsend was meant to be the coach that would take a gifted (with the potential of becoming golden) generation of players – spearheaded by Russell and current captain Stuart Hogg – on to the next level, but instead they have stalled.

Townsend deserves some sympathy. Some of the reaction towards him has been disproportionate. Nobody who has had any dealing with the man believes this is the sort of situation he welcomes.

It looks like he has been badly supported throughout the last few years in the Scotland hot seat, and in the decision to fight this spat with Russell in public he has been badly advised.

But this is a results-based business and the buck must stop somewhere. He is now relying on his players – missing their most gifted talisman – to dig him out of the hole on Saturday.