We preview Sunday’s solitary Six Nations clash between Italy and Wales being played at the Stadio Olimpico.
The opening round of the 2017 Six Nations closes out in Rome this Sunday with perennial wooden-spooners Italy taking on a Welsh side who struggled under interim head coach Rob Howley.
Can the Azzurri pull a shock and beat another side who occupy a position inside the top 6 of the IRB world rankings?
Italy v Wales | Sunday 5 November | Stadio Olimpico | 16:00
To Win (80 Mins)
Italy 17/4 | Draw 25/1 | Wales 1/6
Italy (+11.5) 9/10 | Wales (-11.5) 9/10
They may have beaten the ‘Boks last year but don’t expect them to repeat the trick by getting a win over one of the big boys in this year’s Six Nations. I’d actually be surprised if they even mustered up a victory considering their last win in the tournament came back in 2013 against an extremely poor French outfit.
Look, Italian head coach Connor O’Shea is doing great things with this Italian side but they will be hard tasked to get one over the Welsh despite the ‘Dragons struggling for form.
The Italians come into this year’s Six Nations without talismanic prop Martin Castrogiovanni. The former Leicester man retired from the game last year and has subsequently left a massive void which will be filled by Andrea Lovotti.
The Azzurri do still have a veteran prop to call upon this weekend with 34-year-old Lorenzo Cittadini set to anchor the scrum from tighthead. There’s also a change in the Italian second row with George Biagi taking over from Quinton Geldenhuys, who retired at the end of last year.
While the aforementioned retirements will affect Italy somewhat, it must be remembered that ten of the players who will take to the field this Sunday were part of that famous – or infamous depending on where your loyalties lie – win over South Africa late last year.
This is certainly a potential banana peel for Wales who have struggled for form since Rob Howley took over the coaching reigns from Warren Gatland. They closed out last year with some uninspiring performances that included a near loss to Japan.
The Dragons did give a decent account of themselves in last year’s Six Nations, finishing as runners-up to England. Whether they can reproduce that early 2016 form is up for debate, though.
Howley has opted to make a slew of changes from the side that beat South Africa back in November. Livewire scrum-half Rhys Webb returns to the side having overcome a long-term injury while props Nicky Smithson and Samson Lee also make a return to the starting XV. There’s a further change to the tight five with Jake ball coming into the second row in place of the injured Luke Chatteris.
Wales are likely to take a conservative approach into this one despite the implementation of the four-try bonus point system. They may break the shackles somewhat in the second half particularly if veteran full-back Leigh Halfpenny can kick them into a 10 to 12 point lead with a quarter of the game to go.
Verdict: Italy (+11.5) 9/10
I don’t generally tip the Italian’s on the plus in the Six Nations but I just can’t see the Welsh putting the hosts away by a massive margin this Sunday. My money is on the Azzurri keeping it within the +11.5 margin.