Team news, battle areas and TV details for the Wales v Italy Six Nations match in Cardiff. Can the Azzurri cause a shock against a much-changed Welsh line-up?
Six Nations Wales v Italy Preview
Wales have made ten changes for this Six Nations game, drawing criticism for showing a lack of respect to their bottom-placed opponents. It is a misplaced accusation, for Warren Gatland is sensibly taking the opportunity to discover more about his squad in a fixture that Wales should still win comfortably.
Naturally, Italy should use the Welsh selection to stoke their fire. Your heart goes out to them because they are constantly chasing their tail. In commendably blooding the younger players that they’ll need to assume the mantle from the likes of Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni, they are learning harsh lessons in the unforgiving Six Nations arena.
This is the longest losing run (15) in their Six Nations history and only two shy of the all-time championship record of 17 straight defeats, set by France in 1911-20.
With 136 points already conceded this year, Italy could set another unwanted record should things go badly in Cardiff and at home to Scotland next week. Their highest points-against figure is 228, from their first year in 2000.
A chance for Cubby Boi
Gatland’s selection earned applause in the Rugby World office because, at the age of 27, there’s a first cap for James Davies. The Scarlets flanker has been a standout for years, both as a ball-handler and breakdown master. His 31 turnovers put him top of the pile in last season’s Pro12, but that is just par for the course for him.
We featured Davies in our recent 100 Best Players list and the pressure is now on, because the omitted Josh Navidi is leading the championship’s turnover stats, alongside John Barclay. Davies just needs to play his normal game, and expect him to pop up regularly in the wide channels as an attacking force.
New at ten
A Scrum V poll last week found that 62% of people wanted Davies’s Scarlets team-mate, Rhys Patchell, to return at fly-half. Instead, Gatland has opted for Cardiff Blues’ Gareth Anscombe (24%), whose cameo at Twickenham – after switching to ten late in the game – almost enabled Wales to inflict a first home defeat on Eddie Jones’s England.
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Anscombe likes a running game and he will doubtless be under instructions to keep the ball in play. Ireland did that in round two, when Italy had only five lineouts, and there will not be a better opportunity for Wales to demonstrate the high-tempo, offloading game that we have seen in patches this season.
Despite having 14 caps, Anscombe has only once started a Test at fly-half, against Japan 15 months ago.
George North and Taulupe Faletau, who have both played 74 Tests, some of them for the Lions, represent a hard core of experience and they both return after injury problems.
North has scored in each of his last four appearances against Italy, including a hat-trick in 2015. Not for the first time, he has a point to prove after his club boss at Northampton, Alan Gaffney, questioned his desire to turn out for the Saints.
He has been overtaken as Wales’ No 1 wing by Steff Evans but it should be remembered that North is not yet 26. There could be dozens more appearances left in those powerful legs and don’t be surprised if he scores Wales’ second try this weekend – it would be the country’s 200th in the Six Nations.
Give us the ball
Italy may be going down heavily in this tournament but they’re playing with adventure. Full-back Matteo Minozzi and flanker Sebastian Negri have been excellent, with only CJ Stander making more carries than the Zimbabwean-born Negri.
The Azzurri’s biggest problem is their failure to keep the ball, and a faltering lineout has made it difficult to get hold of it in the first place. They achieved just 37% possession against both France and Ireland, and the huge defensive challenge which results from that – Italy made 227 tackles against France, missing 24 – means inevitable fatigue in the final quarter.
Asked how to address this in an interview with Scrum V, head coach Conor O’Shea said: “First and foremost we have to look at our set-piece, make sure that gives us a solid platform. There’s also key things that happen within games that put you under pressure, so hopefully we can get a couple of decisions that will go our way, that will give us that momentum in the first place.
“But our mindset, from the word go against England, has been to hold the ball. And that’s the mindset we will go out with against Wales. If we have possession we know we’re dangerous. That’s our goal now, to make sure we increase the amount of possession we have and then hopefully you’ll see that we’re moving forward in the right direction.
“It’s hard because this is the very highest level and we’re having to make all these changes (blooding players) that should have been made a long time ago. Everyone else has got better.
“We’re now making those changes, I think everyone can see that, and we will keep on working to make sure we’re turning the key energy moments in matches our way. And if we do, hopefully the confidence will flow.”
Italy have beaten Wales twice in the Six Nations, in 2003 and 2007, and they also managed an 18-18 draw in Cardiff in 2006, when Wales were the reigning Grand Slam champions.
Parisse played at six that day and at scrum-half was Paul Griffen, who has been outspoken about Gatland’s much-changed selection.
“In Italy it will be seen as disrespectful because they aren’t playing their best team,” he told BBC Wales Sport.
“People will look at it and say we’re not winning games, we’re not playing to 100% of our capability, but why do Wales have to do this? Wales could go on and finish second in the Six Nations, so why would they make this many changes?”
If Italy feel that way, the best response is to defeat Gatland’s new-look side, which he has also selected with round five in mind, on account of a six-day turnaround. Gatland, incidentally, has a 100% record against Italy, having beaten them eight times with Wales and twice with Ireland.
The QBE Rugby Predictor forecasts a 40-16 win for Wales, along with victories for Ireland (28-16 v Scotland) and England (24-18 v France).
Wales Liam Williams; George North, Owen Watkin, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans; Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Nicky Smith, Elliot Dee, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, James Davies, Taulupe Faletau (capt).
Replacements Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Samson Lee, Seb Davies, Ellis Jenkins, Aled Davies, Rhys Patchell, Leigh Halfpenny.
Italy Matteo Minozzi; Tommaso Benvenuti, Giulio Bisegni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini; Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd, Sebastian Negri, Maxime Mbanda, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements Oliviero Fabiani, Nicola Quaglio, Tiziani Pasquali, Federico Ruzza, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward.
Wales v Italy, Sunday 11 March, 3pm, Principality Stadium.
Frenchman Jérôme Garcès, 44, was the man in the middle for England v Wales, when Gareth Anscombe was controversially denied a try by the TMO. His old friends nickname him Magique, after a last-minute drop-goal he landed during his playing days as a full-back.
The TV Details
The game is live on BBC One, BBC Wales and S4C.