HomeTravelWales aim to avoid new world ranking low in Rome

Wales aim to avoid new world ranking low in Rome

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Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome Date: Saturday, 11 March Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Coverage: Live on S4C, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, the BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

A potential Wooden Spoon decider for Wales against Italy in Rome. And the visitors are the underdogs.

Not something that would have been thought possible for Wales during Warren Gatland’s first 12-year stint in charge.

But that is the reality facing the visitors this Saturday in the Eternal City.

Wales have found themselves battling more often than not for Six Nations trophies over the last 20 years.

Now they find themselves hoping to avoid finishing bottom of the table.

The tournament was expanded from the Five Nations in 2000 to accommodate the Italians, who have since propped up the standings on 17 occasions, compared to Scotland four times and Wales and France once.

It is 20 years since Wales experienced such ignominy, when Steve Hansen was in charge.

The prospect remains a real possibility unless they can defeat the hosts at the Stadio Olimpico.

Avoiding a new low

Wales are aiming to avoid a clean sweep of Six Nations defeats for the first time since 2003.

In the two decades since, Wales have won four Grand Slams and five Six Nations titles and reached two World Cup semi-finals, mostly during Gatland’s first tenure.

Now at the start of his second spell in charge after he returned by taking over from fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac, Wales have no points from three matches.

It is more than a year since Wales won a game in this tournament and they head to Rome following losses to Ireland, Scotland and England.

Three convincing defeats, no bonus points, only three tries scored and 12 conceded. The damning statistics don’t lie.

A sequence of 12 defeats in 15 matches has seen Wales slip to 10th in the world rugby rankings, a lowly position they have held only twice before.

Wales will drop out of the top 10 for the first time since the rankings were introduced in 2003 if they suffer defeat against Italy and could even drop as low as 13th.

There have been poorer sides than this Welsh class of 2023. Some of the 1980s and 1990s squads, spring to mind.

But Gatland’s team will not want to become the lowest-placed Wales side since ranking records began.

Dominant Wales, but damaging defeats

Wales have dominated the head-to-head fixture against Italy with 27 wins in 31 games, but it is often the defeats that are remembered.

There were Six Nations losses in 2003 and 2007 at the old Stadio Flaminio venue and the famous 2022 defeat in Cardiff.

The first defeat 20 years ago was marked by an infamous smile from captain Colin Charvis – captured by the television cameras – as he sat on the bench after being replaced.

It led to a Welsh newspaper poll ridiculously placing him as the second most-hated man in the world between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Four years later, Gareth Jenkins’ side also fell foul of the Italians and English referee Chris White, who stopped Wales from taking a late line-out close to the hosts’ line.

White blew the final whistle despite telling captain Gareth Thomas and fly-half James Hook seconds beforehand they had time to kick the ball to the corner and attempt a match-winning try.

Wales have since won their last seven matches in Rome, but last year came the first away win for Italy in Cardiff which ended a 36-game Six Nations losing streak for the Azzurri stretching back to 2015.

Full-back Ange Capuozzo made the memorable break that led to Edoardo Padovani’s last-gasp try, converted by Paulo Garbisi, which ended Italy’s seven-year Six Nations losing streak and sparked wild celebrations. For Italy at least.

Gatland unbeaten record, Italy chase Rome win

Gatland boasted a perfect record of 11 wins against Italy in his first stint in charge of Wales, with 10 Six Nations successes and a World Cup warm-up victory in 2015.

That was exactly his record against Scotland, though, before Wales suffered a record defeat against Gregor Townsend’s side in February at Murrayfield.

Italy are chasing a first home win in 10 years in the tournament with the last victory in Rome coming against Ireland in March 2013, just a month after they had also beaten France at the Stadio Olimpico.

Italy now have a settled side with only one enforced change from the team that was beaten Italy with Tommaso Allan replacing the injured Capuozzo.

The Azzurri include Welsh-speaking scrum-half Stephen Varney, son of former Neath flanker Adrian, who will once again be taking on the land of his birth after qualifying for Italy through his grandparents.

In contrast, Gatland has not opted for any consistency in selection with six changes for Italy, after making five and nine alterations respectively in his previous choices.

There have now been three different half-back, front row and back row trios in four games as the Wales coach struggles to find his regular starting side.

Only captain Ken Owens, wing Josh Adams, centre Joe Hawkins and lock Adam Beard will have started the four matches.

This contrast has been evident in the tournament because while both sides have lost three games, Kieran Crowley’s Italy have looked more threatening and cohesive.

They were close in Rome to toppling Ireland and France, the top two ranked sides in the world currently. So they will more than fancy their chances against Wales.

Off the field issues

Problems off the field have followed Wales around also with Gatland pointing out he believes a major split within the Wales camp undermined their Six Nations display against England.

Wales’ top players threatened not to play in their last game on 25 February in protest at the continued financial uncertainty within Welsh rugby, before the side took the field.

Gatland revealed a strong divide within the senior squad over potential strike action continued on to the pitch.

Captain Owens says the decision was democratic, but admitted it had been a hugely emotional time for the players.

The hooker insisted the Wales squad were now solely concentrating on Rome.

Time out of Wales might also help the squad from having to cope with what Owens describes as the “goldfish bowl of Welsh rugby”.

Rather than returning to Cardiff, Gatland’s side will travel to Nice after their stay in the Italian capital.

They will then make their way up to Paris for the final match against France on Saturday, 18 March.

Wales will do so relieved and perhaps buoyed by a much-needed victory over Italy or glumly staring a Six Nations clean sweep of defeats in the face.

The stakes are high in Rome this weekend.

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