In any tournament, you would be completely forgiven for anticipating the meeting of teams that have claimed a French scalp to be a title-deciding tie. However, this version of the Six Nations is doing a wonderful job of defying logic.
As it happens, Saturday’s clash between Italy and Wales at the Stadio Olimpico amounts to a tale of two nations fighting to escape the table’s lower reaches. For the loser, conquering Les Bleus will feel extremely far away.
Reasons to back Italy
Behind the preposterous moustache, Jacques Brunel is a canny connoisseur of straightforward principles. Unceremoniously replacing Tobias Botes and Luciano Orquera with the unfussy pairing of Edoardo Gori and Kristopher Burton, his evident aim is for the hosts to triumph in the territory battle and squeeze their rivals out. Despite the spark of vision from Dan Biggar that led to George North’s try, Wales showcased very little in Paris to suggest that their attack is finely tuned. Should Burton kick accurately out of hand throughout, Italy should sternly test the composure of their visitors.
As patriotic a performer as has ever graced this great competition, Martin Castrogoivanni captains his country for the second time thanks to Sergio Parisse’s suspension. From the eye-watering way in which the terrific tighthead has belted out Il Canto degli Italiani prior to each of his 93 Tests, you sense he might be inspired into something special. If that is the case, Gethin Jenkins will need to drastically improve at scrum-time.
Precedent is the final thing on Italy’s side. Frankly, Rome is not a happy hunting ground for Wales, who suffered ignominious losses at the Stadio Flaminio in 2003 and 2007. Aside from a Shane Williams-inspired 38-8 win in 2005, each contest in the Italian capital has been tense and tight. A new, more intimidating venue awaits for this trip, and a 72,500 capacity crowd can easily re-inject Welsh doubt with memories of a grim run so fresh.
Reasons to back Wales
First of all, it should be stressed that any outfit across world rugby would be poorer for Parisse’s absence. But to put things into stark perspective, Manoa Vosawai – the man who replaces him – has garnered just 10 caps since his debut in 2007, including outings against the might of Japan, Romania and Portugal. Without the immense carrying talents of their regular captain, the Azzurri’s attack will be severely stunted. Any threat from the base of the scrum is depleted hugely. Justin Tipuric can expect to influence the breakdown more pertinently than he did in Paris, too.
Cleverly laying selection scrutiny to bed by naming his starters ten days ago, Rob Howley gave his players ample time to iron out any indecision. Theoretically, that means Richard Hibbard’s lineout will provide a solid platform for fast, go-forward ball and the Mike Phillips-Biggar axis can unleash a hungry set of outside backs that have points to prove. Jenkins and Adam Jones, two weeks closer to fighting fitness, are not as likely to fold either.
An ugly evening over The Channel may at long last have lifted a significant burden from Welsh shoulders. Shackled fear of failure since a Grand Slam that now seems an age away, a good proportion of their eight successive reverses were snatched from very feasible victory. Now, the tide should have turned. Thankfully though, there will not be a sniff of complacency around with realist-supreme Ryan Jones at the helm. In the knowledge that the class of Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and James Hook is waiting in the wings, the first XV can tear off at a rapid tempo.
It won’t be pretty – it might not even be convincing – but Howley’s charges should side-step this assignment and set up a tournament-definer at Murrayfield. Wales by 8.
By Charlie Morgan