Wales look to keep Grand Slam hopes alive
March 9, 2012
All eyes will be on Leigh Halfpenny come Saturday © Getty Images
Wales will look to keep their Grand Slam dreams alive when they entertain Italy at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
Warren Gatland's charges have been the form side in this year's competition after opening their account in the Aviva Stadium in round one of the tournament where they overcame Declan Kidney's Ireland 23-21. This was swiftly followed by an impressive performance against Scotland in the second weekend of action with Leigh Halfpenny keeping the scoreboard ticking over with two tries, three penalties and three conversions. But it was their trip to England in the third match of the campaign where Gatland's men put down an impressive marker. They came away from Twickenham with a 19-12 triumph and the Triple Crown in the process. And with Ireland drawing with Les Bleus last weekend, Gatland's charges are the last men standing for the coveted Grand Slam.
But looming large and in their way are the unpredictable Italians. They are still in the midst of a transitional period under Jacques Brunel with three losses to their name so far in the Six Nations. They opened their campaign with a defeat to France in Paris before just being edged by England in freezing conditions in the Stadio Olimpico. And against Ireland they were blown away in the closing stages of the match as they fell 42-10 despite being competitive for much of the clash. With question marks surrounding their playmaking ability, coach Brunel will hope his charges come together to repel the rampant Welsh.
Wales - Player to Watch: Justin Tipuric steps into the sizeable boots of skipper Sam Warburton in his first start for the national side. The Ospreys openside has a growing reputation within rugby circles as a class operator in the back-row and will be looking to cement this against the Italians.
Wales - Team News: Gethin Jenkins captains the side in the absence of Warburton and he packs down alongside Adam Jones and Matthew Rees. In the second-row Alun Wyn Jones partners his Ospreys team-mate Ian Evans while Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate and Tipuric form the back three. Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland stay at half-back while Jamie Roberts has recovered from an injury to keep his place in the centres alongside Jonathan Davies. George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert form the back three. Luke Charteris also stands a chance of getting some match action after being named on the bench.
Italy - Player to Watch: Mirco Bergamasco is back in the blue of the Azzurri and will be looking to give his backs some guidance. While their forwards have been typically imperious, Brunel will hope Bergamasco can get the backs firing.
Italy - Team News: Brunel has opted to ring the changes, making seven switches from the side hammered by Ireland in the last round. Kris Burton reclaims the fly-half jersey from the misfiring Tobie Botes, who drops to the bench, while veteran winger Mirco Bergamasco returns after a long injury lay-off. Clermont Auvergne centre Gonzalo Canale partners Alberto Sgarbi in midfield, while at scrum-half there is a start for Fabio Semenzato. In the pack, Cornelius Van Zyl is paired with Quintin Geldenhuys in the second-row, while Simone Favaro joins Alessandro Zanni and Sergio Parisse in the loose trio. Up front, Andrea Lo Cicero starts at loose-head
Key Battle: It's master against apprentice in the back-row with Parisse lining up against Faletau. The Welsh No.8 was one of the standout players in the recent World Cup but as ever, Parisse is at the heartbeat of the Italian side.
Trivia: George North will become the youngest player and only teenager in the history of the sport to win 20 caps when he runs out against Italy on Saturday afternoon.
Stats: The 2012 Triple Crown winners have averaged nearly 4 tries per game against Italy since they were admitted into the Championship in 2000.
"We have a great work ethic within the team, and I can't emphasise enough just how professional these players are and the extras they do after training. They are a real credit to Wales and Welsh rugby."
"Going to Cardiff to the Millennium Stadium against this team is probably something impossible for us."
Prediction: Italy will battle hard in the first 40 or so minutes of the match but it will be Wales who come away with a convincing victory
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