This Saturday, Wales will kick off the Six Nations when they host Italy at the Millennium Stadium and the Red Dragons know that they have the opportunity to complete an unprecedented hat trick of tournament wins.
Despite a turbulent autumn campaign, when they were beaten by the brutality of the South Africans and the brilliance of the Australians, Wales enter the tournament as favourites. Poor autumn form and the regional rugby exodus had little effect on Wales’ successful campaign last season and expect a similar response from the wounded Welsh this time round.
Last year, Wales showed no intention of defending their Six Nations title in their opener against Ireland until they went 27 points behind. This year, it is hard to see them affording the Italians the same luxury.
Alun Wyn Jones will captain the Welsh for the first time since 2009, with Sam Warburton, who has not played since the loss against Australia in November, on the bench. Jones will be joined by Luke Charteris in the second row, after injuries to Bradley Davies and Ryan Jones, and Ian Evans serving a 12-week ban. The Ospreys captain will undoubtedly lead by example with immense physicality and dynamism, but Charteris is lightweight and while he is a strong lineout jumper he will not be able to impose himself physically as the missing second row trio consistently do.
Bath Prop Paul James will pack down alongside Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones in the front row. Jones is set to return to the international game to win his 90th cap, after missing the final three autumn tests because of a calf injury. Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau complete a well rounded back row.
Veteran scrum half Mike Philips will rekindle the half-back partnership with Rhys Priestland that worked so well in 2012. Priestland, who missed last season’s tournament with an achilles injury, gets the nod ahead of Dan Biggar.
Wales’ monstrous backline will be bolstered by the return of Jamie Roberts. He will partner Scott Williams in the midfield, while the world class back three of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Alex Cuthbert will look to torment the Italians.
Italy have not beaten Wales since 2007 and they have only beaten them twice in 21 encounters, and never outside of Rome.
The Italian squad has been plagued by injury in the run up to their Six Nation’s opener. Head coach Jaques Brunel has been forced to select four inexperienced youngsters – Angelo Esposito will make his debut on the wing, outside Michele Campagnaro will win his third international cap, as will Lenardo Sarto will also win his third cap on the other wing. 20-year-old Tommy Allan wins his fourth cap at fly-half.
In contrast, flanker Mauro Bergamasco will become Italy’s longest serving player, having made his international debut in 1998. Sergio Parisse will captain the side after missing the final two games of last year’s Six Nations due to suspension. Expect him to trouble the Welsh defence with his surging runs and abrasive power, but he may struggle to make much ground from the base of an Italian scrum that will come under extreme pressure.
Leonardo Ghiraldini is also capable of causing the Welsh problems in the loose. The powerful hooker was extremely impressive in last year’s tournament and he will not shy away from the aggression of Richard Hibbard. The likes of Wasps full back Andrea Masi, who was in fine form for his country last season, La Rochelle centre Gonzalo Canale and Zebre wing Giovanbattista Venditti will be sorely missed however.
All eyes on
Alex Cuthbert is arguably the best finisher north of the equator. Questions may still be raised over his defensive capabilities but his electrifying pace, brilliant balance and acute sense of timing enable him to devastate the strongest defences. Expect to see him regularly venture into midfield and slice through the blue wall when executing the Welsh ‘strike move’ – the one that shredded the Italian defence last season.
It’s hard to look past young Tommaso Allan for Italy – the Perpignan fly-half has played well in his outings in the Top 14 this season. Allan, who represented Scotland at junior level, is a fierce competitor with an impressive turn of pace, a fluid passing game and a thunderous right boot, but he will have to evade the attentions of a dynamic and experienced Welsh back row. Number 10 has been such a problem shirt for Italy down the years – a lot of expectation lies on this man’s shoulders.
Head to head: Adam Jones v Michele Rizzo
In last year’s encounter, in the pouring rain at the Stadio Olimpico, the game was won at scrum time. The usually strong Italian scrum buckled under the immense pressure applied by the Welsh pack and Halfpenny converted the subsequent penalties. This year, expect the scrum to play a pivotal role again.
Questions have been raised over Adam Jones’ fitness and his ability to adapt to the new scrummaging laws, but if he holds his own against Treviso prop Michele Rizzo and anchors the scrum, Wales will run riot off the back of a stable set piece. If not, Italy will seize set-piece control and Rhodri Jones will be introduced before Jones can brush the hair out of his eyes.
Wales have the chance to complete a historic hat-trick, but if they cannot overcome Italy in their own backyard, then it will be difficult to see them making it three from three. Expect an extremely professional and efficient outing from the title holders. Italy are struggling with injuries and they will be fielding an average side – a side that will not be able to overcome a determined and talented Welsh outfit. Wales by 15.
By Nathan Hyde (@NathanHyde2)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images