Preview: Wales v Italy
Thu, 30 Jan 2014 21:55
Look who we are backing!
No side has ever claimed a third successive Six Nations, but Wales are in line to do so, following their Grand Slam in 2012 and taking the crown with just one defeat last season.
No one has claimed three outright Championships in a row since it all began in 1883, although Wales did gain three consecutive titles in the Five Nations between 1969-71, with the 1970 crown being shared with France.
It seems as though a poor start to the Championship does not faze the Welsh either - tripping up as they did at home to Ireland in round one last season, but still going on to claim the silverware.
They became just the ninth side since it all began in 1883, and the first from Wales, to win the title outright after losing their opening match, and the only ones to do so in the Six Nations since France in 2006.
The Championship begins at Millennium Stadium on Saturday, with the current Six Nations title holders Wales playing in the opening fixture for the third time in the last four years.
Italy are the visitors who will attempt to double their tally of previous away wins in the Championship.
Italian coach Jacques Brunel said he is hoping for a "strong performance" from his side against Wales on Saturday.
Italy followed up a promising 2013 Six Nations campaign with a mediocre tour of the Southern Hemisphere in June last year and an even more worrying series of displays in the November Tests.
However Brunel, who steered Italy to a fourth-place finish last year, indicated his side should not be under-estimated.
"A win would be beautiful and obviously the result counts, but a strong performance on the field is what most interests me," Brunel told media as he unveiled his team for the Millennium Stadium clash.
"The statistics show that Wales are the strongest side in Europe, but I think we have a team that can give a good account of itself.
"Wales's potential is very high but I'm hoping we can stand up well throughout the game."
Staying faithful to a formula which has had varying degrees of success for Italy over the past two years, Brunel has selected a team infused with youth as well as experience as he continues to build towards the 2015 World Cup.
No.8 and captain Sergio Parisse will help marshal an experienced scrum which, together, boast 587 caps.
Flank Mauro Bergamasco, who is back at openside, returned to Italy's squad in November for a 37-31 defeat of Fiji, having sat out the second Test, a 20-50 defeat to Australia.
Both Parisse and tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni will pick up their 102nd caps for Italy respectively, only one shy of the national record of 103 held by retired prop Andrea Lo Cicero.
Wales have already forgotten their year-end defeats at the hands of South Africa and Australia - their eighth in a row against the Wallabies.
"We're all looking forward to the Six Nations - it's what we're measured on," captain Sam Warburton said last week, in a worryingly insular analysis.
The comment, admittedly a throwaway line during an on-stage interview at the tournament's launch, was reminiscent of the 1987 World Cup, when Wales were thrashed by New Zealand in the semifinals and a leading administrator said it did not really matter because at least they had beaten the English in the quarters.
The Northern Hemisphere game has come a long way since then, and most players, coaches and administrators know that they have to strive to compete with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Warburton, on the bench on Saturday having not played since November with a shoulder injury, said the hat-trick target had been brought up as his team sat dejected in their Cardiff dressing room after their latest Australian defeat.
"Shaun Edwards [assistant coach] talked about three in a row after that Australia match," he said.
"He said to look for positives and to go away and play ourselves into the squad for the Six Nations where we would have a chance to create history."
With few injuries and a squad packed with players who helped win the title last year and grand slam in 2012, not to mention the bulk of the victorious British and Irish Lions side, Wales certainly look equipped to justify their position as narrow bookmakers' favourites.
Italy averaged more possession (18 minutes and two seconds) than any other side this season, subsequently
making more carries and metres than any other side in last season's Six Nations. The Azzurri also finished the tournament with the best line-out (90 percent) and scrum (91 percent) success rates.
Italy also had the most carries, the most metres gained, and threw the most passes last season.
Eight of the nine tries that Wales scored in the Championship came in the second half of their matches. They only conceded one themselves after the break.
Wales had the best defence overall, missing just eight percent of the tackles they attempted.
Wales also had the best rucking statistics last season, securing possession from 97 percent of all the rucks they set up.
Players to watch:
For Wales: Outstanding backs such as Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, George North and Rhys Priestland are always worth the entry fee. However, the revamped pack will be under greater scrutiny - especially the loose trio of Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate.
For Italy: You simply can't look at Italy without more than just a cursory glance at captain fantastic, Sergio Parisse. Luke McLean, at fullback, will also get a share of the spotlight, as will flyhalf Tommaso Allan - a problematical position for the Azzurri.
Head to head: There aren't any more intriguing than when Taulupe Faletau (Wales) face off to Sergio Parisse. And then there are the scrums - spearheaded by veteran tighthead props Adam Jones (Wales) and Martin Castrogiovanni (Italy).
2013: Wales won 26-9, Rome
2012: Wales won 24-3, Cardiff
2011: Wales won 24-16, Rome
2010: Wales won 33-10, Cardiff
2009: Wales won 20-15, Rome
2008: Wales won 47-8, Cardiff
2007: Italy won 23-20, Rome
2006: Wales and Italy drew 18-all, Cardiff
2005: Wales won 38-8, Rome
2004: Wales won 44-10, Cardiff
Prediction: Wales have won just two of their last five matches, against Argentina and Tonga in November, but the Welsh's only defeat in their last 10 Six Nations matches came at home to Ireland at this stage last season. Italy have been victorious in Round One of the Six Nations on just three previous occasions, all in Rome against Scotland in 2000, Wales in 2003 and France last year. Wales have won their last six clashes against Italy, whilst the closest the Azzurri have come to winning in Cardiff was in 2006 during an 18-all draw. The stats favour a Welsh win and so do we - Wales by about 15 points.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Ryan Bevington, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Andrew Coombs, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 James Hook, 23 Liam Williams.
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Tommaso Iannone.
Date: Saturday, February 1
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 14.30 (14.30 GMT; 15.30 Italian time)
Expected weather: The roof is to be closed, but it looks set to blow a gale on Saturday. Scattered showers through the weekend, some heavy and thundery, and possibly wintry over hills. High of 7°C and a low of 5°C).
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
TMO: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
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