Whisper it still, but this is stage three of a potential Grand Slam. As in 2005, a Welsh dragon is emerging, phoenix-like, from the flames of a recent crash-and-burn, and is conquering all once more.
By Danny Stephens, www.planet-rugby.com
Well, it’s not quite like 2005 actually. Mike Ruddock’s model took rugby’s world by storm, bringing a new heady brand of rugby to Europe’s mix and combining a speed with a flair that most thought impossible on fields patrolled by the dinosaurs of England and Bernard Laporte’s France.
Warren Gatland’s model is a little less pretty, but one heck of a lot more substantial. There is more hard work than pure inspiration, more of a sense of a gradual climb back from the depth Welsh rugby had sunk to in October. This improvement is no one-off.
It is also no definitive improvement yet. Did Wales win in the first game or did England lose? Most of know the answer to that one. Should Wales have put Scotland away long before they did? Very much so. It’s better than it was, but there is a long way ahead for Wales.
Italy, despite still being the weakest link in the Six Nations chain, may provide the most accurate yardstick of the Welsh improvement. If the Welsh backs are as firing as they seem to be, they should have no problem slicing up the Azzurri outside defence. If the forwards have been doing their work, they will find Italy the ideal scrum machine challenge to prove their new worth.
It’s a shame Italy can’t meet Scotland at the moment. It’s been a little harsh on Mick Mallett to throw him in away against Ireland and at home to England with this team that is still evolving from the primordial soup of Italy’s entrance into top-flight European rugby.
Against Ireland they were fortunate to encounter a team still suffering a hangover. On a normal day, Ireland would have scored several tries.
But against England, Italy should reflect that they could, perhaps should, have won. Whatever England’s shortcomings, Italy did themselves no favours with their preferred option of throwing the ball wide early on. Had they concentrated on their own existing strengths rather than trying to find others, and had they managed the set piece better near the end, we could be thinking of the Azzurri in a different light.
Against Wales, the wily Mallett will surely have told his charges to get back to basics, and to target a Welsh pack still a little soft round the edges. In weather likely to be a little grim, Italy’s rugby will blend in well – much like Munster’s 30-odd phase grind did in the recent Heineken Cup encounter at Stradey Park. There will be picks, goes, rucks, mauls… and that will be it. You can’t win rugby matches without the ball, and that will be Italy’s mantra to the Welsh.
So the onus is on the Welsh backs, and the back row, to use what ball they are given wisely and clinically. Stephen Jones’ experience will tell in this department, and with the sporadic magic of James Hook removed from the equation, Gavin Henson may find himself unleashed a little more, in turn meaning Tom Shanklin can provide the grunt that sucks in defenders to release a terrific back three.
The game is Wales’ for the taking, you can’t expect Italy to hang onto it all day. Can the Welsh bring the curtain up on a complete performance this time?
Players to watch:
For Wales: Stephen Jones has been recalled to provide more consistency against the percentage-playing Italians. It will be his ability to control the game and to use the turnovers wisely that will be Wales’ platform for success.
For Italy: Marco Bortolami has been recalled after injury, and with the burdens of captaincy – which were dragging him down a little – off his shoulders, he can revert to type and deliver the performances that took him to the leadership in the first place. With plenty of kicking likely from Italy in defence, he has a crucial job at line-out time to stop the first-phase Welsh possession.
Head to head: Ryan Jones v Sergio Parisse. If there was a Lions team picked now, you’d be pretty certain Jones would be given the number eight role, but Parisse’s effect on Italy in this tournament has been talismanic and he has been the standout number eight of this series. Jones is more of a languid runner in support, whereas Parisse relies upon disproportionate strength in his ball-carrying, backed up with some moments of outrageous skill. The contest between these two, both captains of their teams, will be fierce.
2007: Italy won 23-20 in Rome
2006: Draw 18-18 in Cardiff
2005: Wales won 38-8 in Rome
2004: Wales won 44-10 in Cardiff
2003: Wales won 27-15 in Canberra (RWC)
2003: Italy won 30-22 in Rome
2002: Wales won 44-20 in Cardiff
2001: Wales won 33-23 in Rome
2000: Wales won 47-16 in Cardiff
Prediction: It’s a little too fanciful to think that Italy are going to be able to prey on a team roaring with confidence as Wales are at the moment. Indeed, this could be the day that it all comes together for the Welsh. Wales by 20.
Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Ryan Jones (c), 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Jonathan Thomas, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Rhys Thomas, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins .
Replacements: 16 Huw Bennett, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Deiniol Jones, 19 Gareth Delve (Gloucester), 20 Mike Phillips, 21 James Hook, 22 Sonny Parker .
Italy: 15 Andrea Marcato, 14 Alberto Sgarbi, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Mirco Bergamasco, 11 Ezio Galon, 10 Andrea Masi, 9 Simon Picone, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 4 Santiago Dellapé, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Carlo Festuccia, 17 Andrea Lo Cicero, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Alessandro Zanni, 20 Pietro Travagli, 21 Paolo Buso, 22 Enrico Patrizio.
Date: Saturday, February 23
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Weather: Light rain, strong south-westerly breeze, 12°C
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
Touch judges: Wayne Barnes (England), David Changleng (Scotland)
Television match official: Rob Debney (England)
Assessor: Tappe Henning (South Africa)