Wounded Wales eye strong finish
March 18, 2010
Can Mike Phillips provide a spark for Wales? © Getty Images
Since Warren Gatland took the coaching reins two years ago, Wales have always entered the final week of the Six Nations with all to play for. In 2008 their sights were on a Grand Slam as they prepared to play host to France and last season there was the small matter of a possible Triple Crown and the Championship at stake ahead of Ireland 's visit to Cardiff.
In 2010, the hard-nosed Kiwi is faced with motivating his side prior to a game that can do nothing more than help them avoid the wooden spoon. Italy are the visitors to the Millennium Stadium on Saturday and present a hefty challenge to Gatland and his under-fire charges. In 2006 and 2007, Wales, under Scott Johnson and Gareth Jenkins respectively, produced a draw and a loss against the Azzurri, underlining their waning mojo in the wake of a shock Grand Slam success in 2005.
These results are fresh in the memory for the fans and ill-feeling towards Gatland and his coaching team is growing. A lacklustre performance against Ireland at Croke Park last weekend was ruthlessly punished and in Lee Byrne's sin-binning Wales had yet another disciplinary lapse to rue. They shipped 10 points during his spell on the sidelines, after letting slip 17 against England in the opening round in similar circumstances, and looked a shadow of the side that defended for 20 minutes with 14 men en route to a win over the Irish two years ago.
Italy's heavy defeat at the hands of France halted their charge after a dogged display against England and a victory over Scotland, but they showed enough edge in breaking down some casual French defence in the latter stages at the Stade de France to put Wales on notice. Wales' defensive efforts during this Six Nations have fallen some way short of the coherence expected of defence coach Shaun Edwards. The defensive stability of Gavin Henson is sorely missed at inside-centre, but to pine for their prodigal son is self-defeating.
Nick Mallett has fashioned an Italy side that does not go down without a fight and they are within touching distance of repeating their best Six Nations finish, with victory in Cardiff set to secure fourth place in the table. They will hope to target Wales at the lineout after Matthew Rees' horror-show at Croke Park but their own set-piece has creaked on numerous occasions during the tournament. Nevertheless, Italy possess in Mauro Bergamasco, Quintin Geldenhuys and Martin Castrogiovanni three brilliantly nasty competitors who will make life as difficult as possible for the home side both in the loose and at the set-piece.
Gatland has elected to ring the changes after their Croke Park debacle but has learned his lesson from last season's narrow 20-15 victory in Rome. Then, a raft of replacements were required as Italy led at the break against a visiting side showing 10 changes.
The big news ahead of kick-off has been the inclusion of teenage wing Tom Prydie, who will become the youngest player to represent Wales in a Test after only two appearances for the Ospreys in regional rugby. The giant replaces Leigh Halfpenny in the back-three, with Byrne retaining his place alongside Shane Williams. A week after becoming Wales' most-capped forward, Martyn Williams also drops out of the squad and is replaced by a younger model in his Cardiff Blues team-mate Sam Warburton.
Skipper Ryan Jones has overcome the calf problem that sidelined him for the trip to Dublin while British & Irish Lions Gethin Jenkins and Mike Phillips start at loose-head and scrum-half respectively. The return of Jenkins and Phillips is a major boost, with Gatland having identified them as important characters when the chips are down. Phillips will start his first Test since the Lions' victory over South Africa at Ellis Park last July.
Italy coach Nick Mallett has recalled Pablo Canavosio at scrum-half, with the Viadana No.9 having scored tries in his last two Tests, including an excellent individual effort against the French. He will partner Craig Gower, who has grown in confidence as the tournament has progressed. Carlo del Fava and Paul Derbyshire sparked the Italian resurgence when coming off the bench last weekend and were both handed starting roles before failing fitness tests. Marco Bortolami and Josh Sole retain their places as a result.
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); T Prydie (Ospreys), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), J Thomas (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt)
Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), P James (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), G Delve (Gloucester), D Peel (Sale Sharks), A Bishop (Ospreys), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues)
Italy: L McLean (Benetton Treviso); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), G Garcia (Benetton Treviso), M Bergamasco (Stade Francais); C Gower (Bayonne), P Canavosio (Viadana); S Perugini (Bayonne), L Ghiraldini (Benetton Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), M Bortolami (Gloucester), J Sole (Viadana), M Bergamasco (Stade Francais), A Zanni (Benetton Treviso)
Replacements: M Aguero (Saracens), F Ongaro (Saracens), V Bernabo (Roma), Manoa Vosawai (Parma), T Tebaldi (Gran Parma), R Bocchino (Rovigo), M Pratichetti (Viadana)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (Eng)
Assistant Referees: Marius Jonker (RSA), Stuart Terheege (Eng)
TMO: Graham Hughes (Eng)
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.