Wales will look to finish off their Six Nations campaign in style when they face bottom-placed Italy in Cardiff on Saturday.
Last weekend’s loss to England ended Wales’ hopes of finishing at the top of the table and will try to secure a comprehensive triumph over the Azzurri, who have lost all four their previous matches in the competition.
With regular captain Sam Warburton ruled out through injury, his back row partner Dan Lydiate has been thrust in to the limelight in the leadership role.
Wales’ defence coach Sean Edwards is confident Lydiate is suitable for job.
“I think Dan’s developing into a real leader himself,” said Edwards.
“He is quite a vocal guy and he will be relishing Saturday, particularly in the changing rooms.
“He will be pumping the guys up, making sure we don’t get off to a sluggish start which has been a little bit of an Achilles heel in this campaign so far.”
Warburton is joined on the sidelines list by Wales’ premier lock Alun Wyn Jones and it will be interesting to see how their pack measures up against the Azzurri – who are usually strong up front – minus two of their most experienced forwards.
Another player who will be in the spotlight is scrum-half Rhys Webb, who makes his first start of the campaign after battling injury earlier in the competition.
Webb came on as a replacement against England last weekend and delivered an energetic performance during that final quarter of that game.
Edwards sang Webb’s praises and expects him to build on that effort against Italy.
“Rhys was great when he came on, wasn’t he,” he said.
“He is a class operator.
“It just shows you have to give credit to his rehab team, both at the Ospreys and the Welsh lads who have managed him fantastically well.
“For him to come back after a long-term injury like that in such good shape and looking so sharp was due to credit to them as well as obviously to Rhys.”
Despite being on the receiving end of a 58-15 drubbing against Ireland last weekend, Italy will be highly motivated to beat Wales as this will be their head coach Jacques Brunel’s final match with the team.
Things could have been so different for the Azzurri in this year’s tournament, if they had won their opener against France in Paris. The final score in that clash was 23-21 to les Bleus and if Carlos Canna had succeeded with some shots at goal then Italy would have been victorious.
They also delivered a competitive performance against England before running out of steam in the final quarter and eventually suffered a 40-9 defeat in Rome.
They lost at home to Scotland in Round Three before being blown away in Dublin but team manager Luigi Troiani said they aim to finish on a high in Cardiff.
“We need and want to respond,” he explained.
“We started working immediately in the gym and on the pitch and turned our attention to the Wales game.
“We want to prepare for the game in the best possible way and we’re confident we can finish the Championship by giving a positive impression.”
Players to Watch
For Wales: All eyes will be on Wales captain Dan Lydiate, who leads his country in a Test for the first time. Lydiate has skippered Wales’ midweek team before, so it won’t be a new experience for him, but there’s much more at stake and his decision-making will be crucial and it will be interesting to see how the added responsibility affects his playing style.
For Italy: With Michele Campagnaro sidelined with a knee injury, Andrea Pratichetti comes in to the run-on side at outside centre. Pratichetti has big boots to fill as Campagnaro was arguably Italy’s best player in this year’s competition. In their previous matches, Campagnaro kept defenders on their toes with his outstanding ability on attack and that’s exactly what they want from his replacement, who goes up against formidable foes in Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts in Wales’ midfield.
Head-to-head: The battle of the two fly-halves should have a huge bearing on this fixture’s result. But, while Wales’ Dan Biggar has been the starting number 10 in all his team’s previous matches, Italy’s Tommaso Allan is set to make his first appearance of the tournament. Biggar has been his usual steady self in Wales’ previous matches but will be determined to show that his still his country’s best pivot as their late revival against England came while Rhys Priestland was on the field as his replacement. Allan will be in a similar position to him as he too is trying to nail down the number 10 jersey for his country with an authorative display.
2015: Wales won 23-19 in Cardiff
2015: Wales won 60-21 in Rome
2014: Wales won 23-15 in Cardiff
2013: Wales won 26-9 in Rome
2012: Wales won 24-3 in Cardiff
2011: Wales won 24-6 in Rome
2010: Wales won 33-10 in Cardiff
2009: Wales won 20-15 in Rome
2008: Wales won 47-8 in Cardiff
Prediction: Italy’s wretched run of results is set to continue and they’ll finish this campaign with five losses from as many matches. Wales to win by 30 points.
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate (c), 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Gareth Anscombe
Italy: 15 David Odiete, 14 Mattia Bellini, 13 Andrea Pratichetti, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Valerio Bernabo, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Davide Giazzon, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Jacopo Sarto, 20 Abraham Steyn, 21 Alberto Lucchese, 22 Kelly Haimona, 23 Luke McLean
Date: Saturday, March 19
Venue: Millennium Stadium
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)