Venue: Millennium Stadium
Referee: George Clancy
Warren Gatland’s men took their first Triple Crown trophy since 2008 at Twickenham two weeks ago, but it was a far less impressive performance than fans had grown accustomed to after victories over Ireland and Scotland. Captain Sam Warburton is ruled out through injury, meaning a call-up for Justin Tipuric, but former captain Matthew Rees makes his return at hooker. The win over England owed much to a piece of brilliance by Scott Williams than anything else but he remains on the bench as Jamie Roberts shrugs off injury concerns to take his place in an unchanged backline. Wales fully admitted they were far from their best at Twickenham, and will hope for a much improved performance on Saturday.
Reasonable performances against both France and England will have had Head Coach Jacques Brunel enthused about the potential his team has, but the loss to Ireland can only have come as a disappointment to the Frenchman. The Irish were slow to start and failed to find their rhythm yet they romped home with a big victory, leaving both Brunel and the Azzurri with a lot to do heading into their game with Wales this weekend. The return of Andrea Lo Cicero will help strengthen Italy at the set piece, whilst the inclusion of Fabio Semenzato for his first start at international level will be met by many with enthusiasm as Eduardo Gori has failed to spark the Italian backline despite performing respectably.
What to Expect:
Even with the return of Mirco Bergamasco and Gonzalo Canale to the team, the Italian backs will have a hard time keeping their opposite numbers under wraps and the Italian forwards will need to be at their very best to deny the dangerous Welsh backs quick ball. Warburton is a big loss for Wales, but replacement Justin Tipuric proved he can perform on this stage against Ireland and will form a hugely effectively back row alongside Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. Many criticised Rhys Priestland’s performance against England, but expect the Scarlets fly half to take advantage from quicker service and unleash the Welsh backs. Wales will be eager to consign a poor display against England to the scrap heap, and they will not take Italy lightly.
All Eyes On: Rhys Priestland & Kris Burton
Priestland’s rise to Wales’ first choice number 10 has been impressive in its seamlessness. But the Scarlets playmaker has yet to handle adversity in test rugby, and coming off the back of a poor performance against England, in which a second-half sin binning almost proved costly, it will be interesting to see how he responds. The ball he receives against Italy should be much quicker and Priestland may be keen for a chance to recover some form.
Despite proving fairly inaccurate with the boot in the opening two games of the championship, many were surprised with the inclusion of Tobias Botes against Ireland as he had proved even less accurate after coming off the bench against England. A solid performance in defence and attack, as well as an accurate display with the boot, could secure the number 10 jersey for Burton for the foreseeable future.
Head-to-Head: Sergio Parisse v Toby Faletau
Sergio Parisse has failed to live up to the enormous hype that surrounds him so far in the tournament, and although he has not put a foot wrong in the three games so far, his performances have been fairly average for a player of his calibre. He will certainly have his hands full against Wales, with Toby Faletau already becoming one of the most dynamic loose forwards in the game.
Parisse will need to show the form which has led many to regard him as the best Number 8 currently playing in world rugby, if Italy are to have any chance of an unexpected victory. After bursting onto the scene last year, Faletau has begun to characterise his displays with workman-like ruthlessness, becoming Wales’ calming influence at the base. He will need to be at his best again to stop the highly talented Italian.
After being disappointed with their performance with England, Wales will seek to recover some form and hit this game hard. Wales by 14. TJ.
Wales are in spectacular form and riding high on the back of their Triple Crown celebrations, I expect them to be too much for the Azzurri to handle. Wales by 17 points. AS.