Stage four of a possible Wales Grand Slam is expected to be a formality. But the Six Nations leaders will be wary of banana skins when they face Italy in Rome on Saturday

Six Nations Italy v Wales preview

Is this a lucky Welsh team? As the Six Nations table toppers head to Rome for their round four game on Saturday (2.15pm), it’s a legitimate question.

The refereeing blunders that gifted them two tries against England were an enormous leg up. Those 14 points changed the dynamic of the match. The red cards incurred by Ireland and Scotland are a different matter. Wales deserve credit for playing disciplined rugby during a time when it has never been easier to be sent off for a lack of accuracy in the clearout.

That discipline carried through against England, when they conceded fewer than ten penalties despite several moments of high stress for their defence.

Whatever the helping hand that Wayne Pivac’s men have been given, they have earned their position at the top of the table. Strengthened since the autumn by Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Josh Navidi, their pack has provided the stoutest of platforms. The scrum looks solid and the lineout problems seen in the Autumn Nations Cup have been put to bed.

Victory against Italy would take Wales to within one step of a fifth Six Nations Grand Slam. It’s easy to make the case that the current Welsh side is better than the Grand Slammers of 2019. Taulupe Faletau and Louis Rees-Zammit didn’t feature in that side of two years ago, Wyn Jones played just a minor role.

Italy have home advantage on Saturday but a fat lot of good that has done them. They conceded a combined 98 points in their other home matches against France and Ireland. The Azzurri’s losing run in the championship stands at 30 matches and it’s three years since they even picked up a losing bonus point.

Their forwards look off the pace, their backs offer glimpses of a brighter future. They like to attack the short side and have enjoyed some success there.

The danger for Wales comes from within – trying to prepare as professionally as ever for a match that looks a foregone conclusion. Pivac has done the right thing by selecting his strongest side, with Cory Hill’s inclusion the only unenforced change. Hill, 29, lines up in the most experienced side – in terms of caps – that Wales have ever fielded.

It helps that Lions places are up for grabs – what greater added incentive could there be?

Six Nations Italy v Wales preview Cory Hill

Quality lock: Cory Hill wins lineout ball against England – Wales won 16 of their 17 throws (AFP/Getty)

Ellis Jenkins, the Wales flanker recently back after long-term injury, says it’s going to be a tough game. “It might not be a runaway. The game probably will not be done by half-time,” he told Scrum V. “You go away to Italy and it’s always a big fight for the first 40, 50, 60 minutes maybe. Do the little things right and not get ahead of yourselves and the scores can come then as the game finishes off.”

Italy head coach Franco Smith

Novel approach: Franco Smith (Inpho)

Italy coach Franco Smith, a former fly-half/centre, won most of his nine Springbok caps off the bench. In a novel piece of thinking, he likes to put some of his best players on the bench and introduce them later in the match when sound decision-making might make the difference between winning and losing.

The problem with that, of course, is that the match might already be out of your reach. Expect that to be the case again this weekend in the Stadio Olimpico.

What’s the big team news?

Italy make five changes to the starting XV beaten 48-10 by Ireland last time out.

Up front, props Giosué Zilocchi and Danilo Fischetti, and lock Niccolò Cannone are all given their spurs. Loosehead Fischetti replaces Cherif Traore, who broke his arm against the Irish.

In the back division, Gloucester’s Stephen Varney returns following a dislocated finger. The scrum-half made his first Azzurri start last autumn against Wales and wore the No 9 shirt for last month’s games with France and England.

Wing Mattia Bellini replaces Luca Sperandio, who has a head injury. And Edoardo Padovani is recalled to the 23 to add some experience to a young group of outside backs.

Six Nations Italy v Wales preview Stephen Varney

Back in the fold: Stephen Varney returns after dropping out of the Ireland game in the warm-up (Getty)

Wales announced their team two days earlier than required and it contains two changes to the XV that stunned England at the Principality Stadium. Gareth Davies replaces injured Scarlets team-mate Kieran Hardy (hamstring) at scrum-half, with Tomos Williams – regarded as first choice in the position – not quite fit after his own hamstring injury.

And Cardiff Blues second-row Hill gets a start at the expense of Adam Beard, who is rested after his recent “heavy workload”.

Otherwise it’s as you were, with the likes of Callum Sheedy and Willis Halalolo biding their time on the bench. Lock Jake Ball, another replacement, is set to win his 50th cap.

Rhodri Jones has been released from the squad due to a calf injury suffered at training. Ospreys prop Nicky Smith is his replacement. Jarrod Evans, Owen Watkin, Johnny Williams and Nick Tompkins will link back up with the squad on Monday after being released to their respective regions for game time this weekend.

What have the two camps said?

Italy head coach Franco Smith: “We start again focusing on ourselves. These defeats, which don’t reflect the quantity and quality of work put in during training, must serve as motivation for us to learn from our errors and spur us to react.

“We continue on our journey to becoming more competitive. We have before us two important matches, two opportunities to show our true value and finish off the championship in the best possible way.”

Wing/full-back Edoardo Padavani: “Being here is always a source of pride for me. I have worked hard to regain the best physical condition.

“Wales are a solid team who have shown they never give up. It will be a tough match that we will face by focusing on ourselves. We will try to express our best game.”

Former Italy captain Leonardo Ghiraldini: “Even if our players are young, they have to take responsibility. We miss a bit of leadership in the group at the moment so they have to take it. Even if they are 20 years old, they shouldn’t be afraid to lead the group.

“There are so many players in the past, people like Marco Bortolami and Sergio Parisse, who were leaders when they were young. They have to become men now because that’s what international rugby, and sport in general, asks of you.”

Paolo Garbisi, Italy fly-half

Impressive youngster: 20-year-old Paolo Garbisi has been one of Italy’s successes this year (Inpho)

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac: “Three from three is a great start but there has been plenty to do and plenty of work-ons. For us it is about the performance and we’re not overly happy with the full 80 minutes yet. I think most people would agree we are improving in different areas, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

“This team is building a bit of momentum and we want to stay with that momentum and reward the players that have done the bulk of it so far. I don’t think we would want to slow that momentum down with a lot of changes at this point in time.

“We’ve talked about how we want to play the game. There are two very important games to go and it’s about getting results. Don’t expect us to be throwing the ball around willy-nilly.

“We’ve got a job to do and we have got to get on top of this Italian side before you see any of that sort of razzle-dazzle. It’s important we use the 80 minutes and develop the game we want to use against all opposition.”

Wales attack coach Stephen Jones: “We respect Italy, their players and coaches. They’re a very physical outfit. We’ve got a lot to improve on in our attacking game.”

Wales celebrate winning the Triple Crown

More to come? Wales with the Triple Crown trophy after beating England two weeks ago (Getty Images)

What are the odds?

Wales are overwhelming favourites, with odds of 1-100 on Bet365. An Italy win is 18-1 or you can get odds of 66-1 on a draw. Wales are 8-11 on to win the championship.

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Any interesting statistics?

  • Italy are hoping to end a 30-match losing run in the championship – the worst sequence in championship history. There have been two World Cups played since their last Six Nations victory, against Scotland in February 2015
  • The 2021 championship’s top three tacklers are all Welsh – Justin Tipuric (55), Taulupe Faletau (53) and Alun Wyn Jones (49)
  • Italy have managed two wins and a draw against Wales in their 21 championship meetings, but the most recent of those successes was 14 years ago
  • With 979 caps, this is the most experienced starting side in Wales’ history
  • Wales have won their past 15 meetings with the Italians. Victory today would break their record for most consecutive wins against a particular country, overtaking the 15 straight victories v France from 1908-1927
  • The Azzurri have conceded a joint-highest 41 penalties in this year’s championship, including nine at the scrum
  • The two sides have made the fewest line breaks in the tournament. Italy’s 15 breaks is two more than Wales
  • The last Welsh players to be sin-binned in the Six Nations were Liam Williams and Gareth Davies, against Italy in 2018
  • Wales defeated Italy twice in 2020 – they won 42-0 in the Six Nations, Josh Adams scoring a hat-trick (highlights below), and 38-18 in the Autumn Nations Cup

What time does it kick off and is it on TV?

Italy v Wales, Saturday 13 March, Stadio Olimpico

This round four Six Nations game kicks off at 2.15pm (GMT) in Rome and will be shown live on ITV Sport and S4C. Alternatively, listen to commentary on your choice of BBC radio stations Wales, Cymru and Sounds, or follow updates on the BBC Sport website.

Six Nations Italy v Wales preview Wayne Barnes

Card dealer: Wayne Barnes shows a red card during last week’s Leicester v London Irish game (Getty)

The referee for this one is Wayne Barnes, who’s been flourishing his red card lately in the Gallagher Premiership. More significant, perhaps, is the presence of Pascal Gaüzère on the touchline. The Frenchman begins his ‘rehabilitation’ after making two howlers in the Wales-England game a fortnight ago.

The RFU’s Christophe Ridley (assistant) and Tom Foley (TMO) complete the team of four.

Related content: Meet referee Wayne Barnes

The Teams

ITALY: Jacopo Trulla; Mattia Bellini, Ignacio Brex, Carlo Canna, Montanna Ioane; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Luca Bigi (capt), Giosué Zilocchi, Niccolò Cannone, David Sisi, Sebastian Negri, Johan Meyer, Michele Lamaro.

Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Andrea Lovotti, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Marco Lazzaroni, 20 Maxime Mbandà, 21 Marcello Violi, 22 Federico Mori, 23 Edoardo Padovani.

WALES: Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Jonathan Davies, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Callum Sheedy, 23 Uilisi Halaholo.

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