ITALY are in the uncommon position of being favourites for a Six Nations match as they host troubled Wales in Rome on Saturday battling to avoid yet another Six Nations wooden spoon.
Kieran Crowley’s young side have lost all three of their matches in this year’s tournament but have impressed on each occasion, running holders France and Grand Slam-chasing Ireland close on home turf.
They face a winless Wales which almost went on strike over player contracts before losing to England last time out and has lost 12 times in 15 matches.
Italy have delighted their long-suffering fans with exciting rugby this year and are a point above the bottom team, meaning a win for the Azzurri would all but guarantee Wales finish bottom.
Few would back against a repeat of last year’s dramatic triumph over the Welsh. Italy then beat Australia in the autumn.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the favourites or not the favourites, the game is still the same,” Crowley told reporters on Thursday.
“It’s another Test match, it’s another Six Nations game… someone told me that some bookmakers in England still had Wales as slight favourites.
“All we’re focussed on is looking at areas against Ireland that did not go well for us and improving those areas, and if we can improve in those areas then hopefully that will give us a positive result.”
Counting against Italy is the absence of undoubted star player Ange Capuozzo, the creator of the last-gasp try which earned Italy their historic win over Wales last year.
Toulouse full-back Capuozzo will miss Italy’s final two matches against the Welsh and Scotland after picking up the injury during the Azzurri’s loss to Ireland a fortnight ago, and has been replaced by Harlequins fly-half Tommaso Allan.
The 23-year-old Capuozzo’s superb ball carrying and dynamism has been a huge part of Italy’s game since he made his senior debut against Scotland in last year’s Six Nations.
Without Capuozzo, Italian Rugby Federation Marzio Innocente’s pre-tournament goal of winning “at least” two matches will be much harder to attain, but Crowley says he isn’t concerned.
“That wasn’t my objective, it wasn’t the team’s objective. That was someone else’s objective,” added Crowley.
“Obviously ,it’s feasible because we’ve got two games to go so the fact that it is there means it is feasible.”
Wales coach Warren Gatland admitted after the defeat to England two weeks ago that the wooden spoon was a possibility after failing to stop a dismal run which stretches back into the reign of predecessor Wayne Pivac.
Gatland replaced Pivac in December in the hope he could recreate some of the magic which in his first spell as coach between 2007 and 2019 brought Wales four Six Nations titles — of which three were Grand Slams — and two World Cup semi-finals.
The next World Cup starts on September 8 in France.
“That’s got to be our focus. Part of this Six Nations is about us thinking about the next six or seven months,” said Gatland.
“We’re not miles away, but it’s frustrating and it’s hurting us. It’s not the opposition hurting us, we’re hurting ourselves.
“When we get to the World Cup, the hard work we’ll have put in and the improvement we’ll get in terms of strength, power and fitness will have a big impact on the performance of this side moving forward.” – AFP