When Wales announced their team to play Italy this afternoon it had ten changes from the side that lost narrowly to Ireland in Dublin. Ten! Admittedly the introduction of Taulupe Faletau, Liam Williams and George North can’t undermine the Welsh squad too badly but, if Warren Gatland’s side were playing France this weekend there is no chance he would go into battle without Aaron Shingler, Alun Wyn Jones and Samson Lee.
In fact the entire Scarlets front row has been relegated to the subs’ bench where they will start the game alongside Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Patchell.
Gatland will point to a few injuries. Dan Biggar’s shoulder rules him out, but this is a worrying precedent. The Six Nations is a war of attrition and whichever side is still throwing punches in the final round of matches will likely triumph. Wales are out of the running but Gatland picked the team to play Italy with one eye on France next weekend especially given the short, six-day turnaround.
If Ireland and England were to follow suit by fielding weakened teams against the Azzuri, the integrity of the Six Nations would rest on shaky foundations. Tickets for today’s match were still available on Friday.
Gatland’s controversial selection policy will certainly have all neutrals lending their vocal and emotional support to the Azzurri this afternoon, so I asked former Scotland 20s player Tommaso Allan if he thinks Wales’ selection is a little disrespectful to Italy.
“I don’t know,” replied the Italian stand-off last week, having just landed in Cardiff airport. “I don’t know what the Welsh coach wants with his tactical changes. The players they put out are still good players so it’s up to them.
“They are all really good players so I wouldn’t say it was disrespectful. Whoever is put in front of us we just have to play against, we don’t need to worry about them being disrespectful, we just need to concentrate on playing them.”
Allan is the offspring of an Italian mother and Scottish father who turned out in Scotland age grade teams alongside Jonny Gray, Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Ali Price but he always “felt” Italian. He threw in his lot with the motherland and has now earned a handy 36 caps for the Azzurri, with just the six wins among that number.
Italy are struggling at international level, a little short on the quality needed to compete with the best in Europe. The rest of the tournament has forged ahead, especially the three Celtic nations, while Italy have languished, perhaps even retreated in the past decade.
I suggested to Allan that they have been competitive for the first 40 minutes but fallen away after the break and he was quick to correct me. “I wouldn’t say it’s a good first 40 minutes,” he argues, “we have played well for 50 or 60 minutes then we have a ten or 15-minute period when we don’t play well. It could be the first 15 minutes or the last 15 minutes.
“Against Ireland we didn’t play well in the first half but improved in the second. It’s more just ten-minute segments when maybe it’s ill-discipline or whatever but we have to get it right over the full 80 and be competitive against every side in the world.”
Italy were one score off England at half-time and four points adrift of France as the clock approached the one-hour mark only to leak late tries. Ireland was a different story altogether as the Italians fell 42-0 behind before a well-taken try by Allan himself sparked a second-half revival of sorts.
What would Allan say to those critics who want to open up the Six Nations to competition from outside, specifically Georgia who are now ranked ahead of Italy.
“The can say what they want,” was his slightly terse response. “It doesn’t really impact us. They have their opinion, it doesn’t affect us.”
If there is a glimmer of light at the end of the Italian tunnel it lies in their pro-teams. Zebre may be bottom of the pile but they have won four matches and played with some panache.
Benetton, with Allan pulling the strings at ten, have won eight matches, one fewer than Ulster and much of the credit goes to Italy coach Conor O’Shea whose imprint is all over them both.
It has to feed through to the national team, Allan acknowledged hopefully, both the winning mentality and the more expansive style of play they have adopted, but right now his focus is on Cardiff where you can guarantee a good atmosphere whatever the final result.
“I have played there a couple of times,” says Allan. “I think the roof is going to be closed, we agreed to have it closed anyway. It’s a great stadium, the atmosphere is incredible, one of the best atmospheres in the world.”
And what about Scotland the week after? Is it just another game for the man who once wore the thistle or would a win at least give him bragging rights over dad?
“It’s been five years (since I played for Scotland) so I’ve gone past the idea that the Scotland game is special,” Allan replies. “ It’s just another game. My dad supports me and my team so there are no bragging rights there but I really enjoy playing against people I know, my friends.”
Italy need a few friends right now because the Welsh coach certainly isn’t doing them any favours.