By Owain Jones, Rugby World Editor
On paper, and in virtually every alehouse in the principality, Wales are nailed-on favourites to overcome an Italian side seemingly bereft of confidence, belief and conviction. This is despite the Azzurri showing glimpses of their undoubted potential against France and England, where they were a few missed kicks away from victory. Sadly in this fixture, the history books point against an Azzurri win. They have been victorious in only eight of their 63 Six Nations fixtures and if Jacques Brunel can pull off the Italian job in Cardiff, it will rate as a seismic shock to equal to their 22-21 win over France 12 months ago. For Wales, not even the withdrawal of the inspirational captain Sam Warburton has dampened expectations of a straightforward win, not that you’d hear Warren Gatland say as much. The watchword will be patience. Wales know they’ll be in a dogfight early on but also know that they are cryogenically strengthened to kick on when opponents are flailing. In the last quarter they will look to use their big strike runners to break down a tiring Italian side and rack up the points before a Grand Slam shot.
The party line emanating from the Wales camp this week is that the men in red are ‘relishing the pressure’. Certainly the semi-final adventure at the World Cup will have done them no harm in stiffening their resolve for what is still a very young, but seasoned squad. You can expect the Wales, and Lions front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones be more than a match for Leonardo Ghiraldini and Andrea Lo Cicero upfront, while in the backrow Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Justin Tipuric will bring ballast and no little brio to the party and look to stop the incomparable Sergio Parisse exerting too much of an influence on proceedings.
Out wide, the much feted Welsh backs will be expected to bulldoze and bedazzle an expectant Millennium Stadium crowd, but Warren Gatland will have been drumming in the need to do the basics right and be precise, before they even think of showcasing their skills. Offensively they were not at their devastating best against England but what the last 12 months has shown us is that when certain members of the squad are not firing – take Rhys Priestland a fortnight ago – another player steps up with a moment of magic, as Scott Williams did against England. With even Jamie Roberts admitting to pressure for his place, expect the backline to be putting down a marker for inclusion in a potential Grand Slam finale, none more than George North who becomes the first international player ever to gain 20 caps before his 20th birthday. For their part, Italy, who have shaken and stirred their starting line-up with seven changes, will look for a timely lift from 85-cap Mirco Bergamasco on the wing. If Mirco can improve on the wayward kicking of Tobias Botes, Italy will at least have a fighting chance.
Italy have never won at the Millennium Stadium, the closest they came was in the 18-18 draw in 2006. Jacques Brunel knows he will have to elicit a Herculean performance from his squad to have any hope of an unlikely victory. The Italian’s will have to be clinical with every scoring opportunity, something they have been unable to do consistently for some time, to emerge victorious. Despite Brunel trying to get his charges to play with more width, you can expect Italy to try to gain parity at the set piece, gain decent field position and force penalties to use boot of Bergamasco to keep the scoreboard ticking over. As for crossing the whitewash Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Canale will be asked to punch holes in a hitherto rock solid Welsh defence and give the travelling support something to cheer about.
Verdict: Wales simply have too much power for a limited Italian side, so I’m going for a 28-12 win to set-up a Grand Slam final weekend.
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins (capt), Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau
Replacements: Ken Owens, Paul James, Luke Charteris, Ryan Jones, Rhys Webb, James Hook, Scott Williams
Italy: Andrea Masi; Luke McLean, Gonzalo Canale, Alberto Sgarbi, Mirco Bergamasco, Kris Burton, Fabio Semenzato, Andrea Lo Cicero, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Lorenzo Cittadini, Quintin Geldenhuys, Cornelius van Zyl, Alessandro Zanni, Simone Favaro, Sergio Parisse (capt)
Replacements: Tommaso D’Apice, Fabio Staibano, Marco Bortolami, Robert Barbieri, Tobias Botes, Tommaso Benvenuti, Giulio Toniolatti
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)