Wales v Italy preview: The great Wooden Spoon escape awaits as Warren Gatland’s charges avoid 2022 repeat

Jared Wright
Italy captain Michele Lamaro, Wales centre George North and flanker Tommy Reffell.

Italy captain Michele Lamaro, Wales centre George North and flanker Tommy Reffell.

The stakes are high as Wales and Italy prepare to clash in a crucial match, with both teams desperately seeking to avoid the 2024 Six Nations Wooden Spoon.

For Wales, the prospect of a winless campaign, a fate they last suffered 21 years ago, looms large. A repeat of 2022, when the Azzurri secured a historic victory over the then Wayne Pivac-led Welsh team, would also mark Warren Gatland’s worst-ever Six Nations finish. It would serve as a stark reminder of the challenges Wales has faced in the past year.

The callow Welsh outfit ran Scotland and England close in their opening two fixtures of the Six Nations but were soundly beaten by Ireland in the third and blown away by France in the latter stages of the fourth.

Meanwhile, it has been a marvellous start to life under new head coach Gonzalo Quesada for Italy. They fell to a three-point defeat to England, drew with France, and defeated Scotland. While they did have a blip against Ireland, they head into the final game with the opportunity to finish in their highest Six Nations placing, third.

The decision to change head coaches in 2024 has seemingly paid off for the Azzurri, who look on course to avoid propping up the table for a ninth successive season as they go toe-to-toe in a straight shootout.

The Principality Stadium is one of the most imposing venues in world rugby, providing a perfect stage for what promises to be an epic start to Super Saturday.

Where the game will be won and lost

The last quarter of matches was the real difference in the two sides’ campaigns. The Italians have been brilliant in the final 20 minutes of their last two games, coming up oh-so short of defeating France and holding on against Scotland, while the opposite has been true for Wales as they got hammered by France last time out and failed to close out the games against Scotland and England.

A lot of this has to do with the performances off the bench, but it also stems from the ability of the respective game managers, with Paolo Garbisi stepping up to the plate in particular.

The respective forward replacements must put in a massive effort this weekend, but we imagine that both coaches will want to keep their main decision-makers and game managers on the pitch for as long as possible.

Last time they met

What they said

“It has not been an easy decision for me at all,” an emotional George North said ahead of what will be his final Test match for Wales.

“It is the best thing for me and my family and the sacrifice everyone has to make. I didn’t think this day would come – I wished this day would never come – but for me it is about being able to go out on my terms and being able to enjoy it like I have for every second of the last 14 years.

“I am going to use this week and Saturday to really take it all in and to live my dream again one more time. For me, it has always been about me being the best I can be for Wales and being the best I can be with the Three Feathers on my chest.”

Looking ahead to the game itself, North added: “I said (to the squad), let’s not get weird. This week is the same, and the preparation is the same. I asked them for nothing to change from what we always do. For us, it is a must-win game, and the focus should never be on one individual.”

Italy head coach Quesada knows that Wales will be fired up to give North a fitting send-off at a packed stadium but added that his charges will be up to the fight.

“A very difficult match awaits us on Saturday. A full stadium awaits us, with a Wales hungry for points who want to win and who will say goodbye to one of their greatest players of recent years: George North,” he said.

“We have to be careful, also because in all or almost all the matches, they always had the opportunity to play on equal terms with their opponents for certain moments of the matches: in the second half against Scotland and in the first hour of the battles against England and Wales.

“So the defeats that have come are not really that bad, and the three points collected are there to prove it. The pressure will be on both teams.”

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Players to watch

While Wales have certainly had their struggles this Six Nations, openside flanker Tommy Reffell has been a shining light. The Leicester Tigers tyro has certainly lived up to his nickname ‘Tommy Turnover’ as he leads the Championship in breakdown steals (8) and defensive ruck arrivals (52). In fact, he doubles the tally of the next best from Sam Underhill. With Jac Morgan missing the entire tournament, Reffell rose to the occasion and made his mark in the red jersey, as he is also third on the list of most tackles (64).

Similarly, Rio Dyer was given an extended run in the starting line-up with Louis Rees-Zammit missing the tournament, and he, too, has snapped up his opportunity with both hands. The lightning-fast speedster has scored two tries in his four appearances, but it’s been his overall game that has impressed on both sides of the ball. He will have his hands full with Louis Lynagh across from him on Saturday in what is a mouth-watering head-to-head.

14 years! That’s how long George North has been tearing it up on the international stage after grabbing a brace of tries as an 18-year-old against South Africa. A consistent performer for his country over the years, North dons the red jersey for the final time on Saturday and will step into international retirement as one of the greatest players Wales have ever produced. But before we get to what will be an emotional moment for him, Welsh fans and spectators who have ogled at his brilliance on the pitch over the years, there is one final 80 minutes to see him in action. He can hit the big 50 of international tries if he touches down against the Azzurri with a standalone spot as the sixth best try scorer in Test rugby on the line if he grabs two.

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There was a notable difference in Italy’s abrasive and physical edge in the first half of their clash against Scotland last week, and it comes as no surprise that it coincided with Sebastian Negri’s return. The powerhouse back-rower is a nightmare to any opposition with his hulking carries and thunderous hits on defence, and he is just the kind of player that Wales have struggled to contain this tournament.

If Italy does manage to secure yet another win in Cardiff this weekend, one has to think that Tommaso Menoncello or Juan Ignacio Brex will be up for the Six Nations Player of the Championship award. The two midfielders have enjoyed a simply sensational campaign and have been driving forces in everything that the Azzurri have done well. The Benetton pair could well be deciding factors on Saturday as they look to spoil North’s farewell.

With Ange Capuozzo ruled out of the final day of the tournament, Lorenzo Pani gets his chance to shine in his eighth Test match for his country. Capuozzo’s absence is a major blow to the side, but Wales will be wary of his 21-year-old replacement, who is more than capable of causing all kinds of havoc just like Capuozzo.

Main head-to-head

The tight-five battle has been crucial in both sides’ success and failures this Six Nations, and that is bound to be the case again, particularly with the replacements in the latter stages of the fixture. While the pair of respective half-backs will certainly have their say, the head-to-head that excites us the most is the one between Tommy Reffell and Michele Lamaro.

Both players have been rocks for their side this campaign and offer vastly different skill-sets from the openside flanker role. As already mentioned, Reffell is a turnover machine, while Lamaro is a relentless defender who could spend all day chopping down opposition ball carriers.

The Azzurri skipper also brings a delicate touch in position with his outstanding ability to shift the point of contact, while also punching it up himself while Reffell is route one more often than not.

Winning the small battles this weekend could prove to be all-important, and the pair are well equipped to be that player for their side.

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Prediction

As mentioned already, the clash in Cardiff will decide who collects the unwanted Wooden Spoon in 2024, and Wales requires a win of eight points to avoid it, while a losing bonus or try bonus could be enough for Italy. On paper, Italy are in better form, having won one and drawn one of their last five matches, while Wales has lost five on the bounce. There really isn’t much separating the two sides, but we predict that Wales will have just about enough in the tank this week in an emotionally charged performance to send off North and secure a win of eight points or more in a great escape to avoid the Wooden Spoon.

Previous results

2023: Wales won 29-17 in Rome
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

The teams

Wales: 15 Cameron Winnett, 14 Josh Adams, 13 George North, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Sam Costelow, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Tommy Reffell, 6 Alex Mann, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Dafydd Jenkins (c), 3 Dillon Lewis, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Gareth Thomas
Replacements: 16 Evan Lloyd, 17 Kemsley Mathias, 18 Harri O’Connor, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Mackenzie Martin, 21 Kieran Hardy, 22 Ioan Lloyd, 23 Mason Grady

Italy: 15 Lorenzo Pani, 14 Louis Lynagh, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Tommaso Menoncello, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney, 8 Lorenzo Cannone, 7 Michele Lamaro (c), 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Niccolò Cannone, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Giacomo Nicotera, 1 Danilo Fischetti
Replacements: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Mirco Spagnolo, 18 Giosuè Zilocchi, 19 Andrea Zambonin, 20 Ross Vintcent, 21 Manuel Zuliani, 22 Martin Page-Relo, 23 Leonardo Marin

Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referees: Chris Busby (Ireland), Morné Ferreira (South Africa)
TMO: Joy Neville (Ireland)

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