Italy have brought Mirco Bergamasco back into their team for the first time this tournament, as well as restoring Kris Burton to the No10 jersey after Tobias Botes’ poor showing two weeks ago in Dublin.
Botes plays flatter to the gainline than Burton but is still a long way away from a serious international outhalf, struggling to manage the game, keep defenses guessing or establish position in opposition territory with tactical kicking.
Bergamasco should bring more to the table that the statuesque [and equally immobile] Giovanbattista Venditti, but the exclusion of Tommaso Benvenuti, who drops to the bench, is a bit of a shame. While it’s understandable that Jacques Brunel wants to bulwark his midfield against the twin threat of the Big Bopper and JJV by pairing the very experienced Gonzalo Canale with the big-framed Alberto Sgarbi in the centre, it’s a pity that space can’t be found for Benvenuti on the wing; he has a rare bit of a spark to him, and Luke McLean is looking quite ordinary this season.
The Vicomte di Short-Shorts, Andrea Lo Cicero, is returned to the starting loosehead position, so expect some tears to gush over a [hopefully full-length] passionate rendition of Fratelli Italia, as well as the prospect of a whole lotta leg for the cameras. Papa Bortolami loses out in the second row to the twin South African towers of Geldenhuys and van Zyl, and Simone Favaro is brought in at openside ahead of the somewhat unlucky Roberto Barbieri, who had a fine first half against Ireland a fortnight ago.
Wales will once again be without captain Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins taking over the ref-bothering duties. Jenkins has had an exceptional tournament so far [his workrate in the loose against England was simply magnificent, the stand-out performance from a prop to date] and has a huge amount of international experience. While a quality player like Warburton will always be missed, with Tipuric stepping into the openside role and Jenkins installed as a provisional captain, Wales should be in good enough shape without him.
Rhys Priestland is retained at outhalf, despite some extremely patchy play against England. Priestland has handed over goal-kicking duties to Leigh Halfpenny mid-championship and hasn’t shown anything like the form he showed in New Zealand in the World Cup; in fact he hasn’t scored a single point in three games this tournament. His kicking from hand has been shorter and more poorly judged, and he’s still the defensive weakpoint of the Welsh backline. To a great extent his flaws have been hidden by the abilities of the men inside and outside him. Phillips has been in imperious form at scrum-half, and with either Roberts or North almost certain to break the gainline every single time they get the pill, the Llanelli stand-off has merely to give it to the man directly outside him or look back inside for a blindside winger.
Gatland took a bigger risk in leaving him on the pitch post-sin-binning against England than selecting him against Italy, though. It’s clear that the Welsh management team see him as their starting outhalf, even with James Hook back in the squad after his bout of chicken pox. Hook brings remarkable class and versatility to the subs bench. He’s well capable of playing No10, No12, No13 or No15 at international level; in recent years, only Matt Giteau has shown a similar level of versatility. However, now that he’s playing outhalf regularly for Perpignan, the pressure must be building on Priestland to find his best form again. A more mature Hook who has settled into the outhalf position at club level must be a very tempting option for Gatland.
Any time that Wales have won the championship in recent years, they’ve been able to tear apart the Italians and run out big winners: it was 38-8 in Rome back in 2005 and 47-8 in Cardiff in 2008. However, in other years it hasn’t been plain sailing at all: there were losses in 2003 and in 2007 in Rome, and an 18-18 draw at home in 2006 in Cardiff. The Welsh are a confidence team, and with wins over Ireland and England away from home under their belt, they’ll have far too much for the Italians. Wales by a 26-32 point margin.