Gatland uses Italian game to gauge his strength in depth
Matches between Wales and Italy in recent years involved a close first half followed by an Italian blow-out in the second
Wales coach Warren Gatland. Success on tour in Argentina last summer has increased his options and put pressure on established players who dare not trade on reputation. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
Italy v Wales, Stadio Olimpico, 5.45pm (4.45pm Irish time) - Virgin Media 1, UTV
Each country had an extended break in the Five Nations, the odd number of teams in the tournament meaning someone sat out a round, which were then every two weeks. It is almost like that now with six as sides tend to use the fixture against Italy as an opportunity to rest players.
For all the effervescent enthusiasm of their head coach Conor O’Shea, Italy’s results – 18 straight defeats, all bar two by a double-figure margin – raise questions about the value they bring. Italy have improved under O’Shea yet they are falling further behind.
Wales have made 11 changes, one positional, from the side that won in Paris in the opening round despite having an eight-day turnaround and two weeks to prepare for their third-round match against England in Cardiff.
Their head coach, Warren Gatland, is not quite treating the game as if it is an autumn match against a tier-two nation – taking out a few insurance policies, such as Alun Wyn Jones on the bench and Jonathan Davies in the midfield – but he is using it to gauge his strength in depth.
Gatland takes his leave of Wales after the World Cup in Japan, and in the past 18 months he has focused on developing strength in depth following his side’s exit from the 2015 tournament when they were undermined by a series of injuries.
Success on tour in Argentina last summer, when the bulk of his Lions’ contingent remained at home, has had the combined effect of increasing Gatland’s options and putting pressure on established players who dare not trade on reputation.
Thomas Young makes his first appearance in the Six Nations, the sixth open-side flanker to start for Wales since Sam Warburton last played for them. A position that not so long ago was a duel between Warburton and Justin Tipuric is now hotly contested, and Young, strong over the ball and prominent with ball in hand, fits into the fluid more reactive approach Wales have fertilised since 2015.
Matches between Wales, who are looking to equal their record of 11 consecutive victories, and Italy have settled into a pattern in recent years: a close first half, the Azzurri led at the interval in Rome two years ago, followed by a blow-out in the second, an average score in the opening period of the past four championship matches between the sides of 15-7 compared to 33-9 after it.
Staying power has been one of Italy’s problems, lacking on the bench compared to their rivals, and although they finished strongly against Scotland last weekend they had a man advantage.
Under the current management they have shown more energy and ideas, but they remain vulnerable when confronted with the unexpected and prone to defensive lapses. They have more heart than quality.
Their best performance in the tournament under O’Shea came last March in Rome when they led Scotland 24-12 in the second-half before succumbing to a late penalty. They pushed Australia hard in Padua last November, unfortunate to be denied an early try, but a side that when it was admitted to the Six Nations was strong at forward and had tacticians at halfback now lacks an imprint.
Which is why Gatland has been able to use the match as preparation for the World Cup, taking 31 players to Paris and then to Rome via Nice, where they were in camp for five days, and using them all in the opening two rounds.
Wales could lose out on the title on points difference, but Gatland would like to leave as he arrived in 2008, with a grand slam, making this weekend a means to an end.
The Wales players took advantage of the relatively warm weather in Nice to take to the Mediterranean, but if they are to make a splash in the tournament they will need to master their freestyle as the waters become choppier.
ITALY: Jayden Hayward (Benetton); Edoardo Padovani (Zebre), Michele Campagnaro (Wasps), Luca Morisi (Benetton), Angelo Esposito (Benetton); Tommaso Allan (Benetton), Guglielmo Palazzani (Zebre); Nicola Quaglio (Benetton), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse), Simone Ferrari (Benetton); David Sisi (Zebre), Dean Budd (Benetton); Sebastian Negri (Benetton), Braam Steyn (Benetton), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais, capt).
Replacements: Luca Bigi (Benetton), Cherif Traore (Benetton), Tiziano Pasquali (Benetton), Federico Ruzza (Benetton), Marco Barbini (Benetton), Edoardo Gori (Benetton), Ian McKinley (Benetton), Tommaso Benvenuti (Benetton).
WALES: Liam Williams (Saracens); Jonah Holmes (Leicester), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, capt), Owen Watkin (Ospreys), Josh Adams (Worcester); Dan Biggar (Northampton), Aled Davies (Ospreys); Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Elliot Dee (Dragons), Samson Lee (Scarlets); Jake Ball (Scarlets), Adam Beard (Ospreys); Aaron Wainwright (Dragons), Thoms Young (Wasps), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: Ryan Elias (Scarlets), Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Dragons), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Hallon Amos (Dragons).