RBS 6 Nations Preview: Wales v Italy

RBS 6 Nations
Date: 27th February 2011
Kick off: 14:30 GMT
Venue: Stadio Flaminio

Welsh visits to Rome tend to be made with a real sense of trepidation. Defeats in 2003 and 2007 were the stuff of nightmares. Wales’ last visit to Italy, two years ago, was arguably when the current rot set in, when a deliberately understrength selection was lucky to escape with a win.

Wales succeeded in reducing some of the pressure on coach Warren Gatland by bringing a run of eight test matches without victory to an end. In what was a far from convincing performance at Murrayfield, the men in red did at least restore some credibility to a team that has been in a downward spiral for the last eighteen months. Against an admittedly lacklustre Scottish team, Gatland would have been pleased with the opening quarter offensively and then defensively for the remainder of the eighty minutes. However the Kiwi would have been dismayed by the overall Welsh performance: aimless kicking, a lack of creativity and ill-discipline were the dominant features despite coming away from Edinburgh with a long overdue win.

The Azzuri were bitterly disappointing in defeat to England. The nature of the hammering they received at Twickenham was made all the harder to stomach in light of how close they pushed Ireland the week before. In reality though the opening two rounds of the Championship were perhaps a microcosm of the Italians under Nick Mallet – competitive on home soil, but a pale shadow of themselves away from the Stadio Flamino. However Wales represent an ideal chance for them to claw back some of the credibility they lost two weeks ago. Although their record against Wales is not as favourable as against Scotland, only in the 2005 Welsh Grand Slam season did the Italians struggle to cause the visitors serious problems. A record of two wins in five Six Nations matches speaks volumes for the supposed whipping boys of he Championship.

What to expect
Stephen Jones has spoken of Wales needing to play “high risk and high reward” rugby. For a team who have struggled even to do the basics for a considerable period of time, such an approach is highly fanciful. The home side love nothing more than to drag their opponents into an arm wrestle. Wales can expect their suspect physicality up front to best tested severely, but if the men in red can get over the gain line enough, Wales will look to exploit the obvious Italian weaknesses out wide.

All eyes on:
Following Jonathan Davies’s injury, Wales have been forced into another backline readjustment, with James Hook finding himself in a third new position, in three Championship games. Almost by default Stephen Jones returns to the Welsh outside half berth, and in a similar vein to Ronan O’Gara returning for Ireland this week, the Scarlets’ man will provide Wales with stability and experience from number ten. However, serious doubts linger over his ability as a creative force during the twilight of his international career.

It’s hard to escape Sergio Parisse when talking about Italy. By some distance the Azzuri’s talisman is the best number eight in the Championship. The Welsh back-row unit, who impressed so much defensively, at Murrayfield, have an even bigger task in stopping the Argentinean born Stade Francais man.

Head to head: Paul James v Martin Castrogiovanni
Another influential Argentine-born forward for the Italians, Castrogiovanni will recommence the scrum battle with James that has been a highlight of the European encounters between the pair’s respective clubs in recent seasons. James is an excellent scrummager, but on his day ‘Castro’ is truly formidable.

Last year’s result: 20th March 2010 – Wales 33-10 Italy

When not firing on full cylinders Wales have in the past made a habit of failing to perform against supposedly weaker opposition. Much will hinge on whether Italy can keep the tempo of Saturday’s game down, by being allowed to play to their physical strengths, however limited their likely game plan is. I do however feel Wales will have learnt enough in nullifying a similar threat against Scotland, to come out victorious. Wales by 7.

By Paul French