It’s pretty unusual to arrive at the last weekend of the tournament with all three matches still relevant to the title, though Wales have a tough job ahead. They have not had a vintage tournament and yet somehow they arrive with a mathematical chance to top the charts. If all three contenders – England, Ireland, and Wales – win their matches, the championship goes comes down to points differential. For the moment that puts England ahead, but by the slimmest of margins at 4 points ahead of Ireland. Wales have to make up 25 points just to match England, which means they’ll have to score a lot of points against Italy just to have a chance, probably in the neighbourhood of 50. A faint hope perhaps, but a hope nonetheless.
Helping their cause is a number of factors, in fact the only thing really against them is that Italy are playing at home, where they usually perform better, though they were in Rome last week and were hopelessly bad against France. Four of their best players are missing, including their entire first choice back row of Alessandro Zanni, Simone Favaro, and most importantly Sergio Parisse. The word talisman does not do their captain justice. He is everything to Italy. Without him their offensive capabilities are reduced by half, and they are already severely limited without star midfielder Michele Campagnaro.
Another significant loss is Tommaso Allan, who was a late replacement for Kelly Haimona in last weeks run-on side but had to withdraw himself in the early moments of the match. Haimona has been passed fit to play this week, but Allan’s playmaking abilities will be missed on the bench, where Luciano Orquera resides once again. Orquera joins a host of other veterans who might well be experiencing their last match under the great tournament’s banner.
Mauro Bergamasco will replace Parisse – with Samuela Vunisa moving to no8 – in what will surely be his final Six Nations match, 15 years after the first, an incredible run unmatched by his international contemporaries. That fact is made even more remarkable when one considers that only two other players who took part in that new beginning – Peter Stringer and Shane Williams – are even playing professional rugby anymore, and one of them retired last week.
The same could well be said for Martín Castrogiovanni, recalled after being left out against France. His Six Nations debut came later in 2003 but this will mark his 110th call to battle in an Italian shirt. Andrea Masi also took his championship bow that year and with the World Cup likely to be their swansong, a stirring performance in Rome would mark a suitable end to their storied Six Nations careers, if a winning one is not to be.
Two players making their first appearance in this year’s series are Leicester teammates Michele Rizzo and Robert Barbieri. With Matías Agüero out injured, Rizzo has been recalled after being ignored for a year, something of a surprise given that many Italian pundits still rate him as Italy’s best loosehead prop. Barbieri has had limited opportunities to start at Tigers and that has largely contributed to his absence, but his strength and ability to cover all across the back row make him an ideal impact replacement.
Wales have made two changes to the side that ran out in Cardiff last week, both required by injury. The terrible Achilles injury to Samson Lee could scarcely have come at a worse time for Warren Gatland, and though he will persevere with Aaron Jarvis and Scott Andrews this week, he will have to make some strong decisions in the very near future as to who might be capable of doing the job in September. Whether he thinks over-sized Exeter anchor Tomas Francis is up to the task or he sends an S.O.S. to Adam Jones, he is in a spot of bother. The loosehead side looks a fair sight healthier, with Gethin Jenkins and Paul James only relatively short term casualties and Nicky Smith returning to action recently with Ospreys. In the meantime Rob Evans is handed his debut and Rhys Gill is recalled after a 20 month spell in the international wilderness with Saracens.
Questions over Richard Hibbard’s fitness after suffering concussion against Ireland have prompted an immediate recall for Ken Owens, albeit to the bench. The Scarlets captain has recovered from neck surgery in good time to reclaim his status among the World Cup probables. Mike Phillips is not so lucky, discarded completely in favour of Gareth Davies, a change long overdue and recognition of the latter’s attacking prowess around the breakdown and the ability to make an impact off the bench. The likes of Davies, Justin Tipuric, and Scott Williams could all prove crucial in the final quarter when points can rack up very quickly.
There should be little doubt that Wales will come away victorious, the question is will they be able to play a style that yields tries, and lots of them. Relying on Leigh Halfpenny’s boot won’t be enough – they’ll have to take risks to have any hope of putting pressure on England. Making up the 25 point gap should be well within their powers. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Odds are they do well, but not quite well enough. Wales win by 30 and pray to the rugby gods for a French upset and a Scottish uprising.
ITALY vs WALES
Saturday, March 21, 12:30 GMT, Rome
Referee: Chris Pollock (NZRU)
Assistants: J.P. Doyle (RFU) & Luke Pearce (RFU)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)