Wooden Spoon showdown with Italy sums up Wales' grim fall from grace
Wooden Spoon showdown sums up Wales’ grim fall from grace with Warren Gatland desperate to beat Italy and avoid the ignominy of dropping out of the world’s top 10 for first time
- Wales were ranked as the best team in the world for a brief period in 2019
- But they could drop to 13th if they suffer a heavy loss to Italy on Saturday
- Gatland is still searching for a winning formula after returning in December
A defeat in Rome would see Wales drop out of the top 10 of World Rugby’s official rankings for the first time since they were introduced two decades ago.
Such a scenario is a very real possibility and shows how far Welsh rugby has fallen in what has been a painful last 12 months. Italy will be sensing blood at the Stadio Olimpico.
You have to go back to 2003 for the last time Wales finished bottom of the Six Nations pile having lost all five of their matches. Ironically, that was also the year rugby introduced its rankings system.
For a brief period in 2019, Wales were world No 1. Now they are nowhere near that level and a heavy loss to Italy could see them drop down to 13th.
These are grim times for those of a Welsh persuasion with the country’s game in trouble on and off the field. Oh how Warren Gatland and his players need a win in the Eternal City.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland and his players need a win against Italy on Saturday
After defeats by Ireland, Scotland and England, Wales must come out on top against the also winless Italy if they are to end this Six Nations with a crumb of comfort.
It will not be easy. Kieran Crowley’s Azzurri are upwardly mobile and will be a stiff challenge, even without injured star man Ange Capuozzo.
Wales head coach Gatland is still searching for a winning formula after returning to the top job in December. He has chopped and changed his side in the Championship to date as he finds out what the next generation of Welsh talent is capable of and manages his battered old guard.
Wales’ team for Rome looks, on the face of it, potentially vulnerable. With Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny absent, Owen Williams will kick goals from No 10 with Joe Hawkins as back-up.
Neither has booted a single point for their country.
Of course, the talent in the Welsh side is still significant and they undoubtedly have enough in their ranks for victory. But, with confidence low after 12 defeats in their last 15 matches and Welsh rugby’s boardroom circus ongoing in the background, Wales’ players aren’t in great nick.
Gatland admitted this week there had been a ‘significant split’ in his camp over whether or not to strike for the England game and that ‘time was the healer’ in sorting out the divisions.
Wales will have to be united as one to win.
Scrum-half Rhys Webb has been recalled as one of six changes from side beaten by England
‘We are not quite where we want to be,’ said Gatland, who has recalled scrum-half Rhys Webb as one of six changes to his side for Rome. ‘We’ve still got a lot of work to do.’ Gatland is well aware of the scale of the challenge in his second stint as Welsh coach. He is desperate to avoid a winless Six Nations and finishing bottom with a wooden spoon.
‘I’ll be honest with you it is not something I have thought about,’ said Webb of that possibility, as he prepares for his first Six Nations start in six years.
‘We know it has been a tough campaign. As the tournament is going on we are getting better and better. We’ve done our homework on Italy. They are one hell of a team at the moment.’
Of Gatland’s latest rotation, Webb is the headline selection. When he moved to Toulon, the scrum-half became the highest profile victim of Wales’ controversial 60 cap rule. It meant he was ineligible to play in the 2019 World Cup. Since then, Webb has been on the international periphery.
Now, he is back.
‘A lot has happened in those six years,’ Webb said. ‘I don’t regret anything. I’m over the moon to get the No 9 jersey. It’s something I’ve worked very hard to get hold of.
‘That ambition has always been there. I’ve never once thought about packing in.’ In his time away from Test rugby, Webb has taken his three boys to Principality Stadium to watch Wales. Now, Regan, Jesse and Remi will be able to see their dad strut his stuff on the field.
The Webb family will all be in Rome hoping, like all Wales supporters, for a win.
Wales have lost all three of their Six Nations games so far including at home to England (above)
‘My family have followed me all the way,’ said Webb, who is out of contract at the end of this season and is one of 90 Welsh-based players still unsure of their futures amid ongoing financial uncertainty.
Talks continue between the Welsh Rugby Union and the country’s four regions although the focus will be on the field, for 80 minutes at least.
Webb added: ‘Now my kids are a little bit older they keep on asking me “Why aren’t you wearing the No 9 jersey?” Now daddy is No 9, so they know. It’s massive. It’s nice to be back.’ Webb is indeed back, but that will count for nothing unless he helps Wales to a much-needed victory.
The prospect of a fourth straight loss in 2023 is unthinkable.
LINE-UPS FOR SIX NATIONS CLASH
Italy: Tommy Allan; Edoardo Padovani, Juan Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Pierre Bruno; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Giacomo Nicotera, Simone Ferrari, Niccolo Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (capt), Lorenzo Cannone
Replacements: Luca Bigi, Federico Zani, Marco Riccione, Edoardo Iachizzi, Giovanni Pettinelli, Manuel Zuliani, Alessandro Fusco, Luca Morisi
Wales: Liam Williams; Josh Adams, Mason Grady, Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer; Owen Williams, Rhys Webb; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens (capt), Tomas Francis, Dafydd Jenkins, Adam Beard, Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau
Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Rhys Davies, Tommy Reffell, Tomos Williams, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit
Referee: Damon Murphy (Australia)
Kick-off: 2.15pm, Saturday
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
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