Wales could not have asked for a more favourable game to sure their footing at the Six Nations summit than hosting Italy on Saturday.
Wales could not have asked for a more favourable game to strengthen their footing at the Six Nations summit than facing Italy in Cardiff on Saturday.
Sitting a point ahead of nearest rival France, Wales will hope to avoid a slip-up against the Azzurri before facing les Bleus in their finale.
It would be a shock of astronomical proportion if Italy were to win, and one subsequently struggles to find a punter going against the 1/33 on Wales.
Warren Gatland's charges simply have too much class and confidence in each other right now and are expected to claim this one with ease. Victory would still set up a winner-take-all meeting with les Bleus at the Millennium Stadium and if anything, the pressure would be more on Wales following France surrendering the chance to claim their second Slam in three years. The All Blacks know how France enjoy being the underdog.
But the form of Sam Warburton and company means they are the logical clean sweepers and with that tag would possibly go a top four global ranking, resulting in a better chance of them avoiding the big southern hemisphere guns at Rugby World Cup 2015, which has its Pools drawn later this year.
Who knows what point of their progression Gatland and Shaun Edwards' men will be at when England hosts the showpiece in three-and-a-half years time. Aging players will not be an issue except for maybe at tighthead where Adam Jones will be 34, but even that is not an antique for an international prop. Their back-row trio of Dan Lydiate, Warburton and Toby Faletau will know each other inside out by that stage while combinations at half-back between Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland and in the powerful midfield of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies will strike fear into all of the rivals for the coveted Cup in England.
Example worth noting: The Welsh XV that took on England had an average age of 25 while also possessing a combined 488 caps. Imagine how that will have grown in 2015.
Warburton is unavailable this week, however, following that Herculean effort in coming back from injury against England. His place goes to Justin Tipuric, with Gethin Jenkins leading the Welsh alongside Jones and a returning Matthew Rees, who comes in for Ken Owens.
We come to Italy, who were the victims of a mauling against Ireland last time out and could be forgiven for looking one week down to the line towards their expected Wooden Spoon hosting of Scotland. That game is set to have as much riding on it as the one in Cardiff.
Jacques Brunel has already slammed his side's performance at Aviva Stadium yet it is captain Sergio Parisse's thoughts that will last with that loss. “In the end we just gave up,” he muttered, with new boss Brunel having made seven alterations to his starting line-up.
Clermont centre Gonzalo Canale – despite having thrown an intercept pass to a Toulouse opponent that resulted in a score in the Top 14 last week – and Racing Metro winger Mirco Bergamasco return to the XV along with ten Kris Burton and scrum-half Fabio Semenzato.
Canale replaces Tommaso Benvenuti at 13 in what's a surprise move from Brunel while Giovanbattista Venditti, Tobias Botes and Edoardo Gori also fall. So are the changes accompanied by a hint of the coach ripping out the first page of his player scrapbook and starting again? We wait to see if they can rebuild or whether they crumble further in Cardiff.
Ones to watch:
For Wales: We are predicting a big game from George North after what was an unusually quiet afternoon against the English. Expect the Welsh to create numbers aplenty in the second-half and that should see both he and Leigh Halfpenny capitalise in the closing stages. It will also be interesting to see whether Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric possesses the qualities to make it at Test level as he has some spacious shoes to fill on Saturday.
For Italy: It was a surprise to see Mirco Bergamasco named as it seemed his time in Test rugby had been and gone following initially being left out when Jacques Brunel began his tenure. He may be called upon to kick this coming weekend so the pressure will be on him to provide for his side. Elsewhere, the introduction of Fabio Semenzato in place of Edoardo Gori in the number nine spot is a decent move as the former has rarely let Italy down.
Head-to-head: Where better to focus when the Italians are playing than at number eight where Toby Faletau is the man up against Sergio Parisse. Both have been impressive thus far in Six Nations 2012 and we are expecting massive performances from them at the Millennium Stadium. As mentioned, Parisse was visibly upset by the manner of their Irish defeat so expect the kitchen sink from him so the Welsh must be on their guard.
2011: Wales won 24-16 in Rome
2010: Wales won 33-10 in Cardiff
2009: Wales won 20-15 in Rome
2008: Wales won 47-8 in Cardiff
2007: Italy won 23-20 in Rome
2006: Drew 18-18 in Cardiff
2005: Wales won 38-8 in Rome
2004: Wales won 44-10 in Cardiff
2003: Wales won 27-15 in Canberra (World Cup)
2003: Italy won 30-22 in Rome
2002: Wales won 44-20 in Cardiff
2001: Wales won 33-23 in Rome
2000: Wales won 47-16 Cardiff
Prediction: Wales to cruise in the end by about 25!
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins (c).
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Luke Charteris, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Rhys Webb, 21 James Hook, 22 Scott Williams.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Luke McLean, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Kristopher Burton, 9 Fabio Semenzato, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Cornelius Van Zyl, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Fabio Staibano, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Robert Barbieri, 20 Tobias Botes, 21 Tommaso Benvenuti, 22 Giulio Toniolatti.
Date: Saturday, March 10
Venue: Millennium Stadium
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland), Peter Allan (Scotland)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)