Wales vs. Italy: 5 Key Battles in International Match
Wales round off their World Cup preparations when they host Italy in Cardiff on Saturday
Warren Gatland’s men slaughtered the Azzurri in Rome at the end of the 2015 Six Nations in a 61-20 thumping that almost snatched the championship.
A home defeat and away win against Ireland has provided a mixed bag in their summer schedule so far, while Italy have lost twice to Scotland.
With the final squads of 31 now settled, this is the last chance for players to jell in a real match situation before they start playing for pool points in the World Cup.
Wales, at least, have the comfort blanket of an opening pool game against minnows Uruguay before a taxing schedule of England, Fiji and Australia in succession.
For Italy, it will be out of the Cardiff frying pan and into the French fire with an opener against Les Bleus, so Jacques Brunel’s men could do with a confidence-boosting performance in the Welsh capital.
Let’s have a look at the key battles.
1. The Scrum
Italy’s scrum was handed a brutal lesson by Scotland last weekend, so they will be looking to atone for that horror show in Cardiff.
They come up against a Welsh unit who performed far better in Dublin than they had when they were roundly beaten at home by Ireland. WalesOnline.co.uk’s Simon Thomas singled out newcomer on the tight head side Tomas Francis for special praise:
The scrum, which was shredded three weeks ago, was transformed, with perhaps the biggest plus of the day being the display from debutant Tomas Francis.
Seldom can so much have rested on the shoulders of an uncapped player, but the Exeter tight-head was up to the task.
The first couple of scrums were reassuringly solid and then, at the third, he was at the vanguard of a massive Welsh shove.
With Adam Jones no longer in the picture and Samson Lee still fighting his way back from an Achilles injury, the No. 3 position, so crucial in securing a solid platform from the set piece, was under huge scrutiny in Wales.
But the showing against the Irish has settled nerves somewhat should Lee suffer a setback in his rehabilitation.
Italy will put the newfound confidence in Lee’s supporting cast to the test on Saturday, and it will be a key area for the visitors to try to gain an advantage if they don’t want to be buried under another avalanche of Welsh points.
2. The Back Row
The star man for Wales in Dublin was undoubtedly open side Justin Tipuric, who was a constant proverbial pain in the backside to Ireland at the breakdown and showcased his ball-handling skills once again.
He is a superb back-up man to Sam Warburton in the No. 7 jersey, and his form will push the skipper to new heights himself.
Against Italy, Warren Gatland has hinted that he may still use players outside the chosen 31-man-squad if he decides certain players need a rest, so we can but speculate on the choice of back row for this contest.
We can say with some certainty that whoever dons the red shirt will come up against the incomparable skills of Azzurri skipper Sergio Parisse.
The Stade Francais No. 8 will need all his attributes finely honed to drag Italy through a tough pool, so expect him to be on good form for this final pre-tournament outing.
3. Scrum Half
Wales No. 9 Rhys Webb was the player of the season in the Pro 12, and his deputies Lloyd Williams and Gareth Davies have seen to it that there is no place in the 31-man squad for veteran Mike Phillips, who was so impressive in Wales’ run to the semi-finals four years ago.
Italy have not been blessed with such a galvanising presence at scrum half since the departure of Alessandro Troncon, and once flirted, famously and disastrously, with the notion of playing Mauro Bergamasco there against England.
It's safe to say whoever dons the blue No. 9 jersey this weekend will be more qualified than the back rower was, but they will either be up against the best player in that position in Europe or one of his motivated understudies desperate to be the name on the bench for those key pool clashes.
The Millennium Stadium was a happy hunting ground for one Italian newcomer in 2014 when the sides last met there.
Outside centre Michele Campagnaro lit the game up with two well-taken tries and an impressive overall display that announced the young man on the world stage.
Wales have been deprived of the services of Jonathan Davies through injury and are unlikely to field the first-choice centre pair of Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams straight after their efforts in Dublin.
So Campagnaro, should he play, could have some understudies to attack at the weekend, and Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards will be keen to see if his system copes better with the Exeter man than it did last year.
5. Gatland vs. Lancaster
They are not on opposite sides of the tunnel this weekend, but the mind games between Warren Gatland and Stuart Lancaster have begun.
Gatland lit the match following Wales’ win over Ireland, suggesting England were far less settled in their game plan and selections.
We already know England will field what looks like a full-strength side against Ireland on Saturday, suggesting Lancaster is well aware of the negative impact a home defeat on the eve of your home tournament could have.
The Guardian’s Rob Kitson says it's a point Gatland has already made: "Hence Gatland’s perfectly reasonable, artfully-timed observation that no home union wants to go into this World Cup off the back of two straight warm-up losses."
And so while Wales are dispatching of Italy, England have to overcome a smarting Ireland side who lost last week but travel to Twickenham knowing full well how comprehensively they outclassed the Red Rose brigade in the spring.
At the end of Wales’ game on Saturday, Gatland could have scored yet more points over his "Pool of Death" rival without having so much as set off down the M4.