6N: Wales need repeat of big 2005 win in Rome to hold hope
All the signs point to Wales beating Italy at a sold-out Stadio Olimpico on Saturday.
Merely winning, however, is not good enough if Wales want a third Six Nations title in four years.
Wales has won seven straight games against Italy, and is on another roll. Since slumping to an upset loss at home to England in the opening round, Wales has won three in a row, capped by last weekend’s mighty 23-16 result over unbeaten Ireland.
But to mend the third-best points difference of the four title contenders, Wales has to be as impressive on attack against Italy as it was in defense against the Irish.
Just to even match England’s lead on points difference, the Welsh have to beat their Italian hosts by 25, which they haven’t done for a decade. Also, Wales, hardly an offensive force, has not scored 30 against anybody in nine months.
Here’s another hurdle: They haven’t won the championship on the last day away from home in 44 years.
Despite needing to go for the jugular, Wales assistant coach Rob Howley stressed patience at Stadio Olimpico.
“There is a collective belief, but we have to play the game on our terms,” Howley said. “If we can do that ... it will be an interesting last 25 minutes. But we have to be very pragmatic, and show composure and patience.
“We can’t throw the ball about early on. It’s not a sevens game, it’s an international test match. We have to respect Italy because it’s going to be a tough game.”
Complicating the issue for Wales is it kicks off first, followed by Scotland-Ireland, then England-France. England and, to a lesser degree, France will know what they have to target for the title.
That prompted Howley to wish all three matches were starting at the same time, to copy football and increase the intrigue.
“I enjoy the last day of the Premier League in football where everyone listens to their radios for the scores elsewhere,” he says. “It creates a unique drama and it probably should be the case in the Six Nations. Going first up, we just have to win without knowing what will be enough.”
Italy has had a day less than Wales to recover from last weekend, and the embarrassing 29-0 defeat to France at Stadio Olimpico last Sunday also cost it talismanic captain and No. 8 Sergio Parisse to a toe injury.
Samuela Vunisa has moved to No. 8 and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini has the captaincy. Two fit-again centurions have been recalled, flanker Mauro Bergamasco, and tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni. Castrogiovanni, who missed the last two matches after a dog bit his nose, will pack against Rob Evans, who receives his second cap and first start for Wales.
Flyhalf Kelly Haimona was also back from a groin injury.
“We want an important response after the awful showing against France, and that’s what we’re expecting,” Italy coach Jacques Brunel said.
Italy: Luke McLean, Leonardo Sarto, Luca Morisi, Andrea Masi, Giovambattista Venditti, Kelly Haimona, Edoardo Gori; Samuela Vunisa, Mauro Bergamasco, Francesco Minto, Joshua Furno, George Biagi, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini (captain), Michele Rizzo. Reserves: Andrea Manici, Alberto De Marchi, Lorenzo Cittadini, Dario Chistolini, Quintin Geldenhuys, Robert Barbieri, Guglielmo Palazzani, Luciano Orquera, Enrico Bacchin.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Aaron Jarvis, Scott Baldwin, Rob Evans. Reserves: Ken Owens, Rhys Gill, Scott Andrews, Jake Ball, Justin Tipuric, Gareth Davies, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams.