Wales, Italy eager to finish with a flourish
Cardiff (United Kingdom) (AFP)
Wales and Italy will go in search of consolation wins of very different sorts when they meet in the final round of the 2016 Six Nations at Cardiff's Principality Stadium on Saturday.
The Welsh will be desperate to give the home crowd something to cheer about after last weekend's 25-21 defeat by England, allied to Scotland's win over France, scuppered their title hopes.
Italy's need for a win, or at the very least a committed display after a nine-try 58-15 mauling by Ireland in Dublin again re-opened the debate about whether the Azzurri, who've lost all four of their matches so far this Championship, were worth a place in the Six Nations.
Well though England played, Wales were alarmingly sluggish during an opening 40 minutes at Twickenham that ended with them 16-0 down at the break.
Two tries in the closing six minutes could not repair the damage and Wales coach Warren Gatland said afterwards that only the players could answer why they were "so flat or lethargic" in the first half.
Now Gatland has made several changes, with Dan Lydiate captaining Wales after the New Zealander decided there was no point in rushing first-choice skipper Sam Warburton's return from a concussion suffered against England.
"With Sam, he came in with some symptoms," said Gatland. "We could have gone through the rest of the week and he could have been available, but it's not worth taking the risk."
Meanwhile wing Hallam Amos, scrum-half Rhys Webb, flanker Justin Tipuric -- in for Warburton -- and lock Luke Charteris have all been brought into the starting side.
- Play-off game? -
Charteris replaces second row star Alun Wyn Jones, who could be out of action for up to six weeks with a heel injury, although Gatland hopes he will be fit for Wales's upcoming tour of New Zealand.
"He has been digging in and giving us what he's got," said Gatland of Jones. "But he knows himself that he is not quite where he has been in the past and just needs that break to hopefully recover and get himself fit and ready for the (New Zealand) tour in the summer."
Italy coach Jacques Brunel has also rung the changes, making five in all to his starting side, for what will be the Frenchman's final match in charge of the Azzurri.
In the front row, Martin Castrogiovanni returns to replace the injured Lorenzo Cittadini, while locks Quintin Geldenhuys and Valerio Bernaboso come in for flu victim Marco Fuser and George Biagi, who was injured in Dublin.
Fly-half Tommaso Allan replaces Eduardo Padovani while, at centre, Andrea Pratichetti takes over from the injured Michele Campagnaro.
"Wales, like Ireland, can be very effective," said Brunel, looking to avoid the second wooden spoon of his Italy tenure.
"We can't afford to allow them too much time and space like we did in Dublin," added Brunel, who is set to be replaced by Harlequins coach Conor O'Shea.
Italy have suffered nine successive defeats against Wales, including last season's 61-20 Six Nations reverse in Rome.
But Gatland was adamant Italy, who've won just 12 out of 84 matches since joining the tournament in 2000, were worth a place in the Six Nations.
"They have beaten Wales in the past, had a great win against France, beaten Scotland on a few occasions. They deserve their spot in there.
"For the development of the game in Europe, if there is a second tier and that continues to improve, then maybe there is an opportunity for the top team of that tier to play the bottom team of the Six Nations in a play-off game.
"It shouldn't just be a straight one up, one down. I think the team coming up has definitely got to be better than the team they are replacing. It's something that is potentially there for the future."
© 2016 AFP