It is more than a year since Wales won a Six Nations game, and they head to the Eternal City following successive losses to Ireland, Scotland and England.
Here are some of the key talking points heading into the Stadio Olimpico clash.
Wooden spoon on the table
The metaphorical “prize” for which country finishes bottom of the Six Nations has gone to Italy on 17 occasions, Scotland four times, Wales once and France once, but it is 20 years since Wales experienced such ignominy. Warren Gatland’s fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen was in charge on that occasion, with Wales’ whitewash confirmed through a 33-5 defeat against France in Paris. Wales head to the French capital on Saturday week, when they will be rank outsiders – Italy tackle Scotland at Murrayfield the same day – so this weekend represents their best chance to end a dismal losing run. Seven successive victories in Rome will encourage Wales, but form favours the Azzurri, having displayed considerably more quality than their opponents so far this season.
Wales on the back foot
The results-driven business that is professional sport can be a cruel place at times, and Wales cannot hide from that. They are arguably the only team in this season’s Six Nations that appear to be moving in the wrong direction. Three successive tournament defeats – and just 27 points and three tries scored – have followed nine defeats from 12 starts in 2022, when Wales suffered humiliating home losses against Italy and Georgia under Gatland’s Wales coaching predecessor Wayne Pivac. They have shown promising glimpses in this season’s Six Nations, but also been ruthlessly punished for dreadful discipline (more than 40 penalties conceded), a chronic lack of creativity and missed opportunities when chances presented themselves. They are not bottom of the table by accident.
Italy must convert promise into victory
While much has been made of the pressure Wales are under, Italy know they must deliver. There is no doubt they have made considerable progress under the direction of their head coach Kieran Crowley, underlined by a thrilling Autumn Nations Series victory over Australia, while the Azzurri also caused problems for Six Nations opponents France, England and Ireland, even if all three games ended in defeat. Italy’s star player Ange Capuozzo is currently sidelined through injury, but they still possess plenty of threats up front and behind the scrum. The Azzurri need a win to confirm their promise, and Wales are unquestionably vulnerable. Can they deliver?
Joe Hawkins a shining light
He might only be 20, but Wales centre Joe Hawkins has excelled on the international stage during his four Test match appearances. He was handed a Wales debut by Pivac against Australia in November, and he has impressed throughout the Six Nations, displaying a maturity beyond his years. Do not be surprised though, if he ends up at some point succeeding cap centurion Dan Biggar as Wales fly-half. “Dan Carter played a lot of his early career at 12 and then moved to 10, and I think Joe might probably be similar in that,” Wales assistant coach Neil Jenkins said. “He is obviously a fantastic 12, and there is no doubt he can easily be a 10 in time.”
What next for Wales?
Gatland has always relished the build-up to World Cup campaigns. It is a time when he gets extended training blocks with the players, and results have stacked up, with Wales reaching World Cup semi-finals in two of the last three tournaments under his coaching direction. There are prominent players absent from the current Six Nations campaign who could return – notably forwards Will Rowlands, Josh Navidi and Dewi Lake – and promising young talent like Hawkins, Mason Grady, Dafydd Jenkins, Christ Tshiunza and Jac Morgan will have more miles on the clock by the time Wales arrive for the France-hosted global spectacular later this year, but it remains a tall order for Gatland to turn things around.