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Guinness Six Nations Preview - Gatland Rings The Changes For Italy Clash

BY Philip Bendon  ·  Thursday Mar 9, 2023

Gatland Makes Sweeping Changes For Italian Jobs – Guinness Six Nations Preview

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Welsh head coach Warren Gatland has made six changes to his side ahead of their trip to Rome for what will be a Championship deciding clash for the two teams.

In the unfamiliar position as rank outsiders, Wales have been a shadow of their former selves this season. Losing their opening three fixtures rather comprehensively, the golden days of Welsh Rugby could not feel further away.

Woeful on-the-field performances have been matched only by the current off-field challenges facing the Welsh game.

Opting for an experienced squad to open the Championship at home to Ireland. Gatland hoped to reignite the fire under several trusted warriors with whom he has shared great days during his first tenure as Welsh coach.

Unfortunately, whilst some of this Welsh squad will go down as some of the finest players to ever wear the red jersey, their best days are firmly in the past.

Starting with the forwards, loosehead Wyn Jones gets the start, whilst the impressive Dafydd Jenkins starts ahead of Alun Wyn Jones in the secondrow. Behind them, the outstanding Jac Morgan starts ahead of fellow youngster Christ Tshiunza on the flank.

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In the backline, Liam Williams replaces Leigh Halfpenny, whilst Louis Rees-Zammit drops to the bench as Rio Dyer returns to the starting line-up.

At scrumhalf, the experienced Rees Webb will make his first start for three years as he comes in ahead of Tomos Williams.

Partnering Webb in the halfbacks will be Owen Williams, who continues ahead of former captain Dan Biggar who drops out of the squad altogether.

In the centres, the dynamic duo of Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady continue their development as a partnership. The two 20-year-olds firmly fit the mould of Gatland centres due to their immense physicality, yet neither can be pigeonholed into the traditional “Warren-ball” game plan.

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Starting with Hawkins, who has genuinely been one of the few bright sparks for Wales thus far in the Championship. Not only does he possess pace and vision, but his distribution skills see him operate as an almost New Zealand-like second five-eighth.

Grady is a physical specimen of the highest order in the wider channel. The 6’5″ and 240lb Cardiff star looks to be the real deal and could well fill the void left by Jonathan Davies, given the somewhat inconsistent showings of George North in the role.

Elsewhere, superstar winger Louis Rees-Zammit has been dropped to the bench as Gatland manages his return from injury. Possibly the best player available to Gatland, Rees-Zammit is one of the game’s truly electric players. Possessing unrivalled pace, his addition from the bench could prove to be the spark Wales desperately needs.

Discussing his selections, Gatland said, “We feel that having watched Italy and how they’ll tend to play from everywhere, including their own 22, getting guys on the ball is going to be pretty important,” Gatland said on Thursday.

“Rhys Webb gets an opportunity at nine and has been training well. He’s been great in the squad; he brings that experience and a voice to that nine position.

“Liam Williams comes in at fullback. We did discuss whether we put Louis Rees-Zammit to fullback and how that would have looked. But he still hasn’t played a lot of rugby in terms of coming back from a relatively long injury with his ankle, and we just felt with the way the game’s going to be, and the pace of the game that him coming off the bench and the impact he can have could be pretty important.


“We’ve been disappointed with the results so far, and for me, it’s hard to take as it’s the first time I’ve lost three games in the Six Nations with Wales. We’ve had a lot of things going on off the field as well, but there are no excuses.

“The message to the players has been that we have to be smart in terms of the way we play, but we’ve also got to be brave and make sure that when the opportunities are on, we shift the ball. We have to keep scanning and looking at options, and if there’s a chance to move the ball, then be brave and do that.”

For the hosts, the headline will absolutely be the absence of star fullback Ange Capuozzo who will miss the fixture through injury.

Replacing the Toulouse man will be Harlequins Tommaso Allan, who moves from his usual position of flyhalf.

Given his immense influence on their attacking game, there can be no doubting the effect that Capuozzo’s absence will have on this Italian side.

With their chief playmaker out, the burden will fall on Montpellier flyhalf Paolo Garbisi to pull the strings.

Having made his return from injury in round three against Ireland, Garbisi was nothing short of sublime in their narrow loss to the world’s best team. His ability to challenge the line with the ball in hand whilst also picking the right moment to kick is a step above any Italian flyhalf of the past decade.

If Kieran Crowley’s men were to back up their victory over Wales last season, then the battle at the breakdown will be crucial.

In this area, the Italians are as good as just about any in the Championship. Starting with captain Michele Lamaro who is a modern-day version of the great Roman gladiators. The Benetton star is the latest in a long line of world-class Italian backrows and has seemingly picked up where Sergio Parisse left off.

Joining Lamaro is the hard-hitting duo of Sebastian Negri and Lorenzo Cannone. Zimbabwean-born Negri is without a shadow of a doubt one of the best tacklers in the Championship, while Cannone is a rangy running number eight who operates as an extra backline player in attack.

Key Match-Up

With Capuozzo out injured, the intriguing clash between him and Liam Williams has cruelly been taken away from fans this weekend.

However, one area that will certainly make for fascinating viewing is the battle of the centre partnerships.

In total, there are three players aged twenty playing in the centres, with the dynamic Welsh duo facing off against fellow young gun Tommaso Menoncello and senior statesman 30-year-old Juan Ignacio Brex.

Just how the Italians handle the physicality of their visitors will go a long way to deciding which side has more gainline success.

Whilst neither Menoncello nor Brex are shrinking violets by any means, neither player is a renowned gain-line basher. Instead, the two Benetton players have operated with more guile and panache to make their impact. Menoncello has often acted as more of a second distributor, whilst Brex has brought a clever kicking game to the Italian backline.

Prediction

Never has a wooden spoon match seen two sides on such vastly different trajectories.

Starting with the visitors, Welsh Rugby has, quite frankly, never been at a lower ebb. Financial uncertainty, allegations of abuse and an impending overhaul to the union are about as dark as it gets for the Six Nations giants.

Italy, on the other hand, is verging on the point of being a genuine threat to the other teams in the tournament on a regular basis. Yet with zero wins from three to open the Championship, it is now the time to prove they have the conviction to match their ambition.

Lose at home to quite possibly the weakest Welsh team in the professional era, and it will be a case of the same old Italy.

Win, and they travel to Edinburgh with the possibility of a mid-table finish still very much alive.

Whilst the Capuozzo loss cannot be underestimated, Italy remains the better of the two teams and, as such, will record a momentous victory. Italy by 8.

Written by Philip Bendon

Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Josh Adams, 13 Mason Grady, 12 Joe Hawkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Rhys Webb; 1 Wyn Jones, 2 Ken Owens (c), 3 Tomas Francis, 4 Dafydd Jenkins, 5 Adam Beard, 6 Jac Morgan, 7 Justin Tipuric, 8 Taulupe Faletau.

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.

Italy: 15 Tommaso Allan, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Tommaso Menoncello, 11 Pierre Bruno, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney; 1 Danilo Fischetti, 2 Giacomo Nicotera, 3 Simone Ferrari, 4 Niccolo Cannone, 5 Federico Ruzza, 6 Sebastian Negri, 7 Michele Lamaro, 8 Lorenzo Cannone.

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.

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