The 2023 Six Nations Wooden Spoon could be decided this weekend as Wales head to Rome in search of their first victory since Warren Gatland returned to the helm.
The two winless sides in the competition collide at the Stadio Olimpico, and the victor will likely finish the tournament in fifth place, avoiding the unwanted Wooden Spoon title.
It’s been a far from ideal start to Gatland’s second tenure in charge of Wales after falling to a 34-10 defeat to Ireland in Round One, which was followed by a hefty 35-7 loss to Scotland. Wales lost three games in succession to start a Six Nations campaign for the first time since 2007 when they suffered a 20-10 defeat to England.
Meanwhile, Italy produced spirited performances in their opening fixtures but ultimately came undone in all three games. They stuck in the fight with France until the 66th minute, eventually falling to a 29-24 defeat before battling from 19-0 down at half-time to lose 31-14 to England. In their most recent fixture, Kieran Crowley’s side gave a good account of themselves against the number one-ranked side, Ireland, with the match ending 34-20.
The Wales squad is still dealing with the turmoil from the contract row between the players and the WRU, but the unrest has somewhat subsided this week. As for the Italians, they will be smarting after defeating Wales last year, but will be without their hero that day, Ange Capuozzo.
For the first time in probably a decade, the Wooden Spoon is not a foregone conclusion, making this an enticing battle not to be missed.
Where the game will be won
The Welsh pack hasn’t quite matched up to their opposing forwards so far in the Six Nations but will need to do so if they have any chance of breaking their duck in 2023. The Italians have quietly pieced together an underrated pack of forwards capable of competing with the competition’s best.
The Azzurri lineout has operated at a success rate of 92 per cent, far better than Wales (78 per cent). Federico Ruzza and Niccolo Cannone have played a crucial role in their success in this area of the game. Ruzza has been just as impactful in disrupting the opposition’s ball, claiming a joint-round tournament high of two lineout steals.
Either side’s ability to get the upper hand in the set-pieces will go a long way, but ultimately, the game will be won in the final quarter.
Wales have not struggled to gain access to the opposition’s 22 in their three games so far in the tournament, but their ability to capitalise on their opportunities has been their downfall. Of their 28 entries – the fourth-best tally in the Championship – they have come away with points on just 36 per cent of the time and that figure plummets to just 11 per cent when you exclude penalties.
Those figures are easily the worst in the Six Nations, with Italy ranking third, coming away with at least a penalty 46 per cent of the time and a try 25 per cent of the time.
Both sides also tend to fall off in the latter stages of matches. Italy have scored just once in the final 20 minutes of games in 2023, while Wales are yet to register a five-pointer in that period. At the same time, Italy have conceded three tries and Wales four as the contest winds down.
Last time they met
What they said
Wales assistant coach Neil Jenkins emphasised the need for Wales to be at their best on Saturday against a “very good” Italian side.
“We are playing a very, very good side, and we need to be at full tilt; there is no doubting that, otherwise we could come unstuck,” Jenkins said. “We need to play well; we need to be accurate; we need to be ready to rock on Saturday.
“I played against some Italian sides in the early 2000s with some fantastic players like Diego (Dominguez) and (Sergio) Parisse, but at this moment in time, they have got an awful lot of talent in that team, and they are not afraid to play from anywhere.
“I think they tend to make good decisions as well – it is not just based on throwing the ball about willy-nilly.
“The reality is we will have to be at our best on Saturday to win. There is no doubting that. We know how good Italy have been.”
While many fans and pundits see Italy as the favourites after knocking over Wales last year, Azzurri head coach Kieran Crowley is not underestimating Gatland’s side.
“We know the importance of the match and the fact that many, not only in Italy, see us as favourites and not as underdogs, but this cannot and must not influence our performance,” Crowley said.
“We want to stay focused on things on the pitch, make our way and win the game. To those who say that Wales are in trouble, I am saying that it is true that they are probably not going through their best moment, but it is still a Six Nations match, and there are no easy matches in this tournament.”
Players to watch
The Italians are without star full-back Capuozzo, but they have a handy replacement in Tommy Allan. The Quins playmaker earns his 70th Test cap for Italy in the match, filling Capuozzo’s vacancy. Despite being 29 years old, Allan is a veteran of the Azzurri side, with the next highest-capped player being Luca Bigi, with 45. While he is traditionally a fly-half, Allan has recently slotted in at full-back to great effect for club and country, forming attacking partnerships with Marcus Smith and Paolo Garbisi, respectively. He is also a player who has risen to the occasion in big games and was the man in the number 10 jumper when Italy defeated Australia last November. His inclusion in the team changes the dynamics of the Italian attack, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, as he can elevate the pressure of managing the game off of Garbisi.
Azzurri number eight Lorenzo Cannone delivered a barnstorming and brutally effective performance against Ireland and could prove to be a thorn in Wales’ side this weekend. The 22-year-old back-rower has been outstanding for Benetton in recent seasons and is also starting to deliver those performances on the Test stage. He charged to 102 running metres, punching holes in the Irish defence and thundered into 15 tackles in a dynamite 65-minute shift.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) February 25, 2023
Returning to his more favoured position at inside centre has proven incredibly fruitful for Tommaso Menoncello, who shone in the midfield along with Juan Ignacio Brex against Ireland. The 20-year-old has also featured on the wing for the Azzurri, but his previous outing proves that he is far more effective closer to the action. He rumbled into the Irish defence creating go-forward ball for his side to attack. The Italians were far more difficult to break down in the midfield, thanks to the chemistry of Menoncello and Brex, who play in the centres together for Benetton in the URC. While he proved to be robust with the ball in hand, he will show a clean pair of heels if he does break through the defence and with the young Joe Hawkins lining up across from him, we will be treated to a fantastic battle in the 12 jerseys.
It’s been a rocky start to Ken Owens’ captaincy, but the hooker’s individual performances over the first three games have flown under the radar. As mentioned earlier, Wales’ lineout has been appalling this campaign, but that blame should not all fall at Owens’ feet. Outside of that, he has been bullish with the ball in hand, making more carries (27) than any other hooker in the Championship. He has also shone defensively, making a respectable 34 tackles – an average of just over 11 per game.
It’s been a long time between Six Nations starts for Rhys Webb, six years in fact, as he takes over the number nine jersey for Gatland’s side on Saturday. The veteran scrum-half earns his 39th Wales cap and will be looking to cement his place in a hotly contested position. The 34-year-old has been excellent for the Ospreys this season, and he will hope that his partnership with Owen Williams will finally get the Welsh attack firing.
Eventually, things have to click for Wales on attack, and a driving force in achieving that has to be inside centre Joe Hawkins. The 20-year-old has looked completely unfussed by the step up to international rugby and can undoubtedly take it up a gear. He is already a genuine triple threat with an exceptional kicking game, superb passing variety, and an abrasive carrying game. We might just see what he is really capable of this weekend.
The old adage that ‘the game will be won up front’ is mostly true for this clash, but ultimately the ability to make the most of any advantage will be the deciding factor. This is where Paolo Garbisi and Owen Williams come in.
The Azzurri looked more assured and accurate in almost all facets against Ireland, and the return of Garbisi is no coincidence. The 22-year-old was central to Italy’s success last year and slotted the match-winning points against Wales in Cardiff to seal the historic win. His injuries later in the year meant the Italians learnt to cope without the young star driving them around the park, but they are undoubtedly better off with him than without him.
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) March 19, 2022
Meanwhile, Williams retains the number 10 jersey, with Dan Biggar (back injury) falling out of the team entirely. Gatland’s decision to back Williams without another recognised fly-half in the matchday 23 will fill the Ospreys playmaker with immense confidence. At times against England, Williams looked to finally get the Welsh attack into the right kind of patterns to launch off, but they were hamstrung when he was forced off the pitch. With fellow Ospreys Webb and Hawkins on either side of him, Williams can certainly get his side firing.
Making the most of chances will be essential, but playing in the right areas of the pitch and winning the kicking duels is just as important in the modern game. The fly-half who achieves this with greater success will put their team in a fantastic position to win the match. Their accuracy off the tee could decide the result, too, with nothing splitting the two sides on paper.
Gatland has never lost a game against Italy during his time in charge of Wales. While this is a vastly different task than that he faced in his first tenure between 2008 and 2019, he will demand that his perfect record against Azzurri remains intact. Wales have won their last seven games against Italy in Rome, dating back to 2007. Wales looked far sharper against England in Round Three and should only improve as the tournament progresses. The Azzurri famously claimed a last-gasp Principality Stadium victory 12 months ago against Wayne Pivac’s side, but unfortunately, we do not see them repeating that feat this year. It will be close, however. Wales by three points.
2022: Italy won 22-21 in Cardiff
2021: Wales won 48-7 in Rome
2020: Wales won 38-18 in Llanelli
2020: Wales won 42-0 in Cardiff
2019: Wales won 26-15 in Rome
2018: Wales won 41-38 in Cardiff
2017: Wales won 33-7 in Rome
2016: Wales won 67-14 in Cardiff
Italy: 15 Tommy Allan, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Tommaso Menoncello, 11 Pierre Bruno, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney, 8 Lorenzo Cannone, 7 Michele Lamaro (c), 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Niccolo Cannone, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Giacomo Nicotera, 1 Danilo Fischetti
Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Edoardo Iachizzi, 20 Giovanni Pettinelli, 21 Manuel Zuliani, 22 Alessandro Fusco, 23 Luca Morisi
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Josh Adams, 13 Mason Grady, 12 Joe Hawkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Jac Morgan, 5 Dafydd Jenkins, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Wyn Jones
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Rhys Davies, 20 Tommy Reffell, 21 Tomos Williams, 22 George North, 23 Louis Rees-Zammit
Date: Saturday, 11 March
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Referee: Damon Murphy (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Karl Dickson (England), Chris Busby (Ireland)
TMO: Joy Neville (Ireland)