Coach Warren Gatland has rung the changes – 10 personnel and one positional – but not because of his side’s woeful first-half showing in Paris.
Instead of returning to Cardiff following their 24-19 comeback win over France, Wales have spent the week training on the Cote d’Azur. Gatland wanted to replicate the kind of turnaround the squad will face at the Rugby World Cup in September and has therefore shuffled his pack, providing opportunities for fringe players to book their flights to Japan.
— Welsh Rugby Union ? (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 7, 2019
Following a comprehensive defeat to Scotland in Edinburgh in week one, Italy will want to put on a show in front of their home fans. Can they cause an upset and secure a first win over Wales since Gatland took charge 11 years ago?
Italy coach Conor O’Shea insisted in the wake of defeat at Murrayfield last weekend that his side could find the level required to beat Wales on Saturday. “[It is] a fight not many people think we can win,” he said, “but we will.”
O’Shea was forced to field questions about his future at last month’s Six Nations launch following newspaper reports in France that the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) were sounding out potential successors to the Irishman.
In his two-and-half years in charge, South Africa, Georgia, Fiji and Japan have all been beaten but victories have been few and far between. In two matches against Wales under O’Shea, Italy have lost both by an aggregate score of 71-21.
It is a measure of how confident his opposite number feels heading into the match that he has made so many changes to the team that came from behind to beat France in Paris.
? #Italrugby: annunciati i titolari in campo sabato all’Olimpico per #ITAvWAL, secondo appuntamento del @SixNationsRugby 2019 ? https://t.co/w5dGkNxx9q#insieme #rugbypassioneitaliana @SeiNazioniRugby pic.twitter.com/XUrfBBCw7l
— Italrugby (@Federugby) February 7, 2019
Of course, Gatland’s decision to leave Alun Wyn Jones, Ross Moriarty and Gareth Davies on the bench – and Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and George North in the stands – highlights the disparity in resources available to each coach.
Turning the Azzurri into a competitive force in the Six Nations is something that will take years. O’Shea is all too aware of that, but he will hope his players can start in Rome on Saturday where they left off at Murrayfield.
Leonardo Ghiraldini (69) vs Elliot Dee (67)
With Ken Owens given a week off following his exertions in Paris, Dee has an opportunity to rubber-stamp his standing as Wales’ number two hooker. Opposite him on Saturday is Ghiraldini, a centurion who will embody the hosts’ physical approach. According to the RPI, Dee has a greater influence on games (85-69) and is a better scrummager (69-65) while providing a jackal threat (70-29) that Ghiraldini, 10 years his senior, does not.
Sergio Parisse (68) vs Josh Navidi (79)
Gatland has decided to take a look at Navidi at number eight in Rome, even though the Wales back row is more comfortable on the side of the scrum than at the base of it. It’s a position the Cardiff player has filled in the past and his versatility could yet prove vital at the World Cup. Navidi, though, does not bring the physicality of Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau or Seb Davies to the role and that is something Parisse and Italy will hope to exploit. Although now 35, Parisse remains a carrying threat and a very tough opponent for a non-specialist number eight.
Tommaso Allan (60) vs Dan Biggar (79)
It should be something of a clash of styles at 10 in the Stadio Olimpico. Allan has matured since he was first handed the keys to the Azzurri attack as a 20-year-old, but question marks remain at Test level – especially concerning his goal kicking. No such worries surround Biggar, who in his new role as a ‘finisher’ for Wales, has come off the bench to kick his country to victory over Australia, South Africa and France in recent months. Selected to start on Saturday he should be relied upon to keep Wales playing in the right areas.
Michele Campagnaro (61) vs Jonathan Davies (76)
It’s a big weekend for Scarlets centre Davies, who takes the captaincy on his 70th Wales appearance. Injuries ahead of this season have impacted on Davies’ RPI rating but according to the rankings he has more of an impact on games than Campagnaro, with his influence rating of 75 four more than his opposite number. Campagnaro’s ability to play on the wing perhaps accounts for his attack score of 82, which is 11 more than Davies. At his best the Welshman is one of the best centres in the world, and he could well make a mockery of his ranking on Saturday.
The breakdown is such a key facet of Wales’ game and despite all the changes, Gatland has once again picked a team that will be confident of dominating that area.
Negri made a mammoth 18 tackles at Murrayfield last weekend, and if Italy are going to get anything out of this contest then he will need to do similar again.
There will be no let-up when the Azzurri have the ball, though, with the Welsh back row having a combined tackle turnover RPI of 255.
Should Wales secure front-foot ball then they will hope Biggar can deliver a composed performance at 10. His half-back partner in Rome will be Aled Davies, who in the eyes of the RPI, is more than a safe pair of hands.
He has an influence rank of 83, pass completion of 87 and 84 for territorial kick meters. Parisse and co must hound and harass Davies and Biggar if Wales are to be upset.
Wales were rocked during the first-half in Paris last Friday, but it says a lot about the resolve the squad possesses that they were able to rebound from such an abject 40-minute display. They have been here before and that performance will have been parked during the warm-weather training week in Nice.
Gatland has rung the changes for Rome but there are no worries about those players coming in, such is the strength of the group. Instead a chance to put a hand up for World Cup selection should galvanise those who aren’t regulars. If it doesn’t then Jones, Moriarty, Davies, Gareth Anscombe and Hallam Amos are all ready and waiting on the bench.
Italy will want to pick up where they left off in Edinburgh but that three-try salvo came when their hosts were down to 14 men and had a bonus-point already tucked safely into their back pocket.
Expect the Azzurri to make life difficult for Wales in the first half, but the visitors will back their superior fitness and skill set to show as the match wears on.
Verdict: Wales to win with a bonus point
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