Rugby Union: Wales set for trying time

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THE slow and sometimes agonising forward march of Wales under Alan Davies's thoughtful direction moves another pace when his team play Italy at Cardiff Arms Park tonight, writes Steve Bale. The coach wanted a match - but not this one.

Davies is uncomfortably aware of the pitfalls. The Italians invariably contrive to be tricky and even infuriating opponents. They embarrassed New Zealand in last year's World Cup and killed the game against England by their wanton offside and killing of the ball.

Last season, Italy trailed only France in the FIRA Championship and last Wednesday they beat Romania 22-3 despite limited possession. Given what has lately happened to Wales against this sort of opposition, tonight's game would have the potential for calamity if Davies's work had not begun to take effect.

'It's a slightly tougher match than we wanted at this stage of the season,' he said. 'I would have preferred a game against the Barbarians - and I would have liked to pick their team.' And no doubt arrange the result as well. Wales are less than seven weeks away from facing Australia and a boost to confidence is imperative.

Stuart Davies did not train yesterday, leaving Phil Davies to fill in for him at No 8 with a third Davies, Ian, on stand-by. Stuart, who has strained a muscle in his left buttock, will have a fitness test as late as possible this afternoon.

The Italians have forgiven their World Cup scrum-half, Ivan Francescato, for changing clubs and have after all picked him in their side who, after a number of other changes, include 11 of the World Cup squad. The newcomers include Julian - or should that now be Giuliano? - Gardner, last seen over here playing for Australia against England in 1988.

Although the Azzurri will be awarded caps, the Welsh, in a striking change of policy, will not. This does not make the game any less significant for them, not with caps to be won against the Wallabies.

The Springboks will be trying to bring some conviction to their French tour when they play Aquitaine in Pau tonight. Last Saturday, they lost to the French development side, a stunning result which betrayed how far they remain off the pace of international rugby - and they admit as much.

Philippe Sella, last season's captain of France, has withdrawn from tonight's regional team following an operation to remove a blood clot in his right thigh which is bad enough to threaten his participation in the first Test in Lyons on Saturday week and the second to be staged in Paris at the Parc des Princes seven days later.

WALES XV: A Clement (Swansea); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), R Bidgood (Newport), S Gibbs (Swansea), M Hall (Cardiff); C Stephens (Llanelli), R Jones (Swansea); M Griffiths (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), H Williams-Jones (South Wales Police), Gareth Llewellyn (Neath), A Copsey, E Lewis (Llanelli), S Davies, R Webster (Swansea).

ITALY: P Vaccari (Calvisano); E Venturi (Rovigo), S Barba (Milan), S Zorzi (Treviso), Marcello Cuttitta; M Bonomi (Milan), I Francescato (Treviso); Massimo Cuttitta (Milan), G Pivetta (San Dona, capt), G Grespan, M Giarcheri (Treviso), C Checchinato (Rovigo), R Cassina (Casale), J Gardner (Rovigo), A Bottacchiari (L'Aquila).

Referee: F Howard (England).