Gatland’s Wales aim to lift nation against Italy

Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Saturday, 16 March Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and online; listen on BBC Sport website, BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra, BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru; text commentary and highlights on BBC Sport website and app.

Rugby’s unwanted prize will be at stake in the opening match of a Six Nations ‘Super Saturday’ finale when Wales and Italy battle to avoid the mythical Wooden Spoon.

That ‘honour’ is given to the side who finish bottom of the table, with Wales currently four points adrift of their fifth-placed opponents.

This year’s tournament has seen narrow defeats for Warren Gatland’s side against Scotland and England followed by comprehensive losses to Ireland and France.

In 2022, Italy came to Cardiff and shocked Wayne Pivac’s Wales with a first victory in the Welsh capital and two years later they arrive at the Principality Stadium in more encouraging shape than their opponents.

Wooden Spoon permutations

Ireland lead the Six Nations standings with 16 points, England are second with 12, Scotland third on points difference from France, Italy fifth and Wales bottom

Wales could beat Italy and still finish with a first Wooden Spoon in 21 years. They would definitely be condemned to bottom spot if Italy win or the game ends in a draw.

If Wales win but Italy secure two losing bonus points, Gatland’s team will finish last, regardless of whether the hosts get a four-try bonus point themselves.

This would also be the case if Wales won without a bonus point and Italy secured a losing bonus point.

The other scenario that could see Wales win and finish last would be if both sides get a single bonus point, but the margin of Wales’ victory is not more than five points. Currently, Italy’s points difference is -37, while Wales’ is -48.

So Wales either need to win and better Italy in terms of bonus points, or match their bonus points and win by more than five points. Do you follow all that?

Welsh rugby in disarray

The Welsh public have shown patience and understanding with the inexperienced and new-look side.

The frustrations and hostility are not aimed towards the young players, but at Welsh rugby bosses who have allowed the current situation to materialise.

The statistics are damning. The national team are performing as poorly as the sides of the late 1980s, early 1990s and early 2000s.

Wales have lost 11 of their last 12 Six Nations games and been defeated in six successive home matches in the tournament.

Wales have not suffered a clean sweep of five defeats in one competition since 2003 when Steve Hansen was in charge.

The closest they came was under Gareth Jenkins in 2007, which was the last time they lost the first four matches in the tournament. Only a James Hook-inspired win over England on the final day 17 years ago ensured Wales finished fifth on points difference.

In three of the last four tournaments – 2020, 2022 and 2023 – Wales have finished fifth with only one win in each competition. The exception was winning the 2021 Six Nations under Pivac.

Wales Under-20s are struggling and the four regions are languishing in the bottom half of the United Rugby Championship.

An overdue long-term strategy is promised by June. Welsh rugby remains in a concerning position, regardless of what happens in Cardiff this weekend.

Gatland under pressure – and loving it

Wales head coach Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland won three Grand Slams during his first stint as Wales head coach and was appointed for a second spell in December 2022

When the system is so flawed, how much pressure should be on the head coach? There are those who believe Gatland has been given an easy ride since his return and is not the man to take Wales forward.

There are others who feel he is the only man. Welsh Rugby Union executive director of rugby Nigel Walker has previously said Gatland is the “best coach in the world”.

Gatland has always recognised international rugby is about results. Trying to avoid a Wooden Spoon is unchartered territory for Gatland but he insists he is loving the pressure.

He has never suffered a Six Nations clean sweep of defeats in 16 tournaments, with 12 campaigns with Wales and four in charge of Ireland, between 1998 and 2001.

In his first, 12-year stint in charge of Wales, he oversaw 10 tournaments with Rob Howley in charge in 2013 and 2017, when Gatland was on British and Irish Lions duty.

Gatland won Grand Slams in 2008, 2012 and 2019 with a record of 35 wins, 14 defeats and one draw in 50 Six Nations games.

Since he replaced Wayne Pivac in December 2022, Gatland’s Six Nations return has been one win and eight defeats in nine games, with an overall record of six wins in 17 matches.

Four of those victories occurred in a memorable World Cup group campaign, which included a 40-6 hammering of Australia in Lyon that will go down as one of Wales’ finest performances.

Gatland demonstrated in France last year what he can do with extended preparation time, but can he go to the well once again and create a new successful team?

Youth over experience

He has lost a lot of experience in the last year with the retirements of Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Josh Navidi, Leigh Halfpenny and now George North.

Liam Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Tomas Francis, Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan, Taine Plumtree, Christ Tshiunza and Dewi Lake have also been unavailable for this campaign because of injury or club commitments.

That has left Gatland handing players like Cameron Winnett, Alex Mann, Mackenzie Martin, Evan Lloyd and Archie Griffin a chance when they have played only a handful of games for their clubs.

He has relied on youth and promise rather than some more established names in the regional game.

Gatland’s selections were often considered his strength. He raised a few eyebrows by not picking North for games against Scotland and France and with his early half-back replacements last weekend, while his inexperienced front-row bench choice this weekend has brought criticism.

Gatland has also ruffled the feathers of the four professional sides with unfavourable comments during this campaign.

His failure to engage personally with Cardiff-born Exeter wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, who chose to play for England, has also attracted criticism.

The New Zealander has previously been able to do little wrong in the eyes of the Welsh public. How much patience will be shown if the losing habit continues remains to be seen.

Italy on the rise

Italy are looking for their finest ever return since joining the Six Nations in 2000 as they bid to make it two wins and a draw in their five games.

They arrive in Cardiff buoyed by a stirring victory over Scotland, which underlined impressive strides being made under new head coach Gonzalo Quesada.

Italy’s win against Scotland was their first Six Nations success on home soil for 11 years, while they triumphed in Wales two years ago thanks to Edoardo Padovani’s try and the game’s final kick, a Paolo Garbisi conversion.

Away from the Test arena, further improvement has been underlined by leading Italian team Benetton’s bid to reach the United Rugby Championship title-play-offs, having lost only three league games this season.

North aims to star one more time

From the moment he arrived on the Test match stage as an 18-year-old against South Africa in 2010, North has proved an inspired presence for Wales and the British and Irish Lions.

He will retire from international rugby after Saturday’s game, having helped Wales win four Six Nations titles – including two Grand Slams – and played in four World Cups.

His Wales try-count stands at 47 in 120 games and he has averaged almost one touchdown per game against Italy, with that particular haul including a hat-trick in 2015.

North deserves every accolade he will receive as a modern-day Wales great whose pace, power and try-scoring prowess made him box-office entertainment.

Wales will miss him, especially in the current situation. It feels like the end of an era with North bowing out.

What the new era produces we wait to see, with hope, anxiety and trepidation.

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