With only two wins between them all year, both teams will be desperate to end 2020 on a high note. Wales hold all the aces for this weekend's fifth-sixth play-off in Llanelli
Autumn Nations Cup Wales v Italy preview
A chance for Wales to bookend a miserable year with victory over the Azzurri, the side they walloped back in February at the proper start of Wayne Pivac’s reign. Since then only Georgia have been overcome and after coming fifth in the Six Nations, Wales are now aiming for the same finishing position in this Autumn Nations Cup play-off at Parc y Scarlets (4.45pm).
There was a mixed response to the 24-13 defeat by England last weekend. Defensive intensity was the biggest plus against the world’s No 2 ranked side, but there was little to relish in Wales’ attacking game. No gain-line, no creativity, no penetration was the nub of it, to which could be added renewed set-piece fragility after a brief respite in that area against Georgia.
Pivac wants game-to-game improvement and greater squad depth from the campaign, and on those criteria he’s doing okay. Wins, however, are taking a little longer. “It’s going to come,” said centre Nick Tompkins. “If we keep chipping away, the rock will crack.”
After a bright if losing start against Scotland, Italy had a week off because of Fiji’s Covid outbreak. They then got tanked 36-5 by France last Saturday night. That match in Paris contained 89 kicks from hand, the sort of stat that is sending a shudder through rugby and fuelling debate about the attractiveness of the sport.
Italy haven’t won in 2020 and another (expected) failure in Llanelli this weekend will see them finish barren in a calendar year for the first time in the professional era. Head coach Franco Smith has had even less to cheer of late than Pivac, but at least one of them should be in better spirits come the end of this match.
What’s the big team news?
Wales again ring the changes from the side beaten by England. George North is recalled at outside-centre – where he last featured against Italy in the Six Nations – and Liam Williams returns following the lip wound against Georgia that required 15 stitches. Jonathan Davies was also a late change at inside-centre after Johnny Williams was ruled out by injury.
Up front, there’s a first start for Ospreys hooker Sam Parry after three appearances from the bench and a recall for flanker Justin Tipuric after his concussion against Georgia.
Cardiff Blues back-row Josh Navidi has still to overcome his concussion issues. He took a knock in training at the end of September and hasn’t played a match since August.
Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy get a second run together this autumn at half-back, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar dropping out of the match-day 23.
Italy make three changes from their Paris line-up. There’s a debut for Benetton wing Monty Ioane – nephew of former Wallaby Digby Ioane – after he qualified recently on residency. Calvisano’s Jacopo Trulla switches from wing to full-back.
And Pembrokeshire-born scrum-half Stephen Varney, the son of ex-Neath flanker Adrian, makes his first start. The 19-year-old Gloucester scrum-half qualifies through his mother and wins his third cap after coming off the bench against Scotland and France.
Paolo Garbisi returns to the country where he began the year by helping Italy beat Wales in the U20 Six Nations. The stand-off kicked 12 points that day in Colwyn Bay.
Among the replacements is Leonardo Ghiraldini. The veteran hooker, just a few weeks shy of his 36th birthday, broke down in tears at last year’s World Cup after the cancellation of the New Zealand match denied him a farewell Azzurri appearance. A year on, he will win cap number 107 if and when he replaces captain Luca Bigi.
What have the coaches said?
Wales coach Wayne Pivac: “This is another opportunity for these players and for us as a squad, another opportunity to build and see the results of all the hard work in training.
“We have blooded eight new caps this campaign. Importantly by the end of the match each will have had a number of appearances to their name. From the outset we wanted this campaign to be about giving players opportunity and we have done that.
“The hard work in training is coming through and we want to show that again on Saturday and finish the campaign on a high, with the performance and result we want.”
On his fly-half selection: “We know what Dan (Biggar) can and can’t do and he played pretty well against England. This match and the Georgia game was always going to be the type of game we continued the trend towards giving guys an opportunity.
“We believe Callum went well against Georgia and this will be a step-up.”
On picking George North at 13: “We played George there against Italy at the outset back in February. We know Jonathan Davies has had some injuries over the last few years. It’s about who is going to be in behind Jonathan and take that role when he is not there.
“Nick (Tompkins) has had an opportunity and George gets a second go at it. This is the time to ask the questions and get the answers.”
Italy coach Franco Smith: “We want to end the tournament in the best possible way. We have a new opportunity to take the field and try to show our worth. Wales are an experienced team and need no introduction. The focus must be on our performance.”
On starting teenager Stephen Varney: “It was never a big call. He’s a very level-headed guy who is a pleasure to work with. His work ethic is excellent.
“If you are good enough, you are old enough. He has put his hand up for responsibility.
“We have kept things reasonably normal. We’ve had a chat and we know there is a lot of emotion but the more you talk about it, the more it becomes an issue.
“He must think on what he can do to have a good game and his emotional intelligence mustn’t take over. He has excluded everything on the outside and just focused on what he has to do. It is beneficial there will be no crowd and he can just find his feet.”
Any interesting statistics?
- Wales have won their past 14 matches against Italy, including a 42-0 shutout in this year’s Guinness Six Nations
- Their overall win success in the fixture is 89% – they were last beaten by Italy in 2007
- Wales have won just two of their last 11 matches, against Italy and Georgia
- Italy are on an eight-match losing run. Defeat this weekend would mean failing to win a match in a calendar year for the first time in the pro era
- The Azzurri have the highest average possession time in the competition, at 19min 4sec
- Only France (41) have used more players than Wales (38) in the Autumn Nations Cup. Italy (26) have used the fewest
- Wales have the worst lineout success (72%) and scrum success (70%) in the tournament. Their 12 lost lineouts on their own throw is twice as many as any other side
- George North needs one try to stand alone as Wales’ second highest try-scorer behind Shane Williams. He is tied on 40 with Gareth Thomas
- The omens are good – the winger has scored nine tries in nine matches against Italy
- Italy have made nearly three times as many offloads as Wales in this year’s competition – 17 against six
- This will be Italy’s second Test against Wales in Llanelli. Their first, in 1998, saw them lose 23-20 in a match that marked the 72nd and final cap for Ieuan Evans
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
Wales v Italy, Saturday 5 December, Parc y Scarlets
The match kicks off at 4.45pm and will be broadcast live on Amazon Prime and S4C. There is also match commentary on BBC Radio Wales and Radio Cymru.
If you’re outside the UK and Ireland, check out our guide to Autumn Nations Cup coverage around the world.
There’s an Anglo-French officiating team for this one, with England’s Wayne Barnes the referee and Luke Pearce (RFU) and Alex Ruis (FFR) his assistants. TMO is Pascal Gauzere.
What are the line-ups?
Wales: Liam Williams; Josh Adams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Louis Rees-Zammit; Callum Sheedy, Kieran Hardy; Nicky Smith, Sam Parry, Tomas Francis, Will Rowlands, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), James Botham, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Ioan Lloyd, 23 Jonah Holmes.
Italy: Jacopo Trulla; Luca Sperandio, Marco Zanon, Carlo Canna, Monty Ioane; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Luca Biga (capt), Giosué Zilocchi, Marco Lazzarone, Niccolò Cannone, Maxime Mbandà, Johan Meyer, Abraham Steyn.
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Simone Ferrari, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 Cristian Stoian, 20 Michele Lamaro, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Federico Mori.
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