Rugby Union: Wales welcome Gibbs

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The Independent Online
Scott Gibbs will make a piece of rugby history in the Olympic Stadium here today when he becomes the first rugby league player to return to international duty for Wales, writes Robert Cole from Rome.

The 25-year-old Swansea centre has missed the last 31 Welsh Tests, but returns to midfield duty against the Italians as Kevin Bowring begins to experiment with his rugby league riches.

David Young and Richard Webster are both back in training with the Welsh squad and the jewel in the crown, Scott Quinnell, should be back in the fold once financial neogtiations have been concluded.

It means the Welsh side could have a stronger, and more professional, look about it by the time the Five Nations' Championship starts in January.

The return of Gibbs in place of the Cardiff centre, Leigh Davies, is the most significant of the six changes in personnel from the 40-33 defeat by France 10 days ago. A first choice for Wales from the age of 19 to his switch to St Helens at the age of 22, the power and presence of the 1993 British Lion in the Welsh midfield has been sorely missed.

After a mere six matches back with the First Division leaders, Swansea, Gibbs is well worth a gamble. He may be making history, but he has other things on his mind.

"The fact that I'm the first player from rugby league to return to an international side doesn't mean anything to me. I just want to go out there, pick up my win bonus and relax on Sunday," Gibbs said.

"It will be great to be playing in a Welsh jersey once again. I'm delighted that Kevin Bowring has shown so much confidence in me and I'm confident I can do a job for Wales.

"It has been a bit frustrating coming back into rugby union from league and there is no doubt in my mind the two games are very different.

"I don't think too much has changed in union during the three years I have been out of the game. I think people are kidding themselves if they think that. Defences are very well organised and I've had to make very few tackles for Swansea in the six matches I've played for them so far.

"When Swansea have played well I've seen a bit of the ball, but when things haven't been so good the games have become tedious. I think there is a tendency to overcomplicate things. Maybe I'm suited more for rugby league than union. Who knows, I might end up playing that game once again in the future."

For the moment, however, his future is in trying to lift Wales out of the doldrums of the Second Division of world rugby prior to the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Victory over Italy is a must and should be achieved despite the upheaval since France.

For the Italians it is the start of a sequence of six matches that will show them exactly where they stand in the world rankings. After Wales they entertain Australia later in the month and then go to play England, Scotland and Ireland. The showdown with France, some time in the spring, will complete their task.

"We feel we are good enough to win at least three of the six games and we want to prove to the rugby world we are now capable of competing with the best teams," the Italian captain, Massimo Cuttitta, said.

His side gave Wales a jolt in Cardiff nine months ago, rallying to within one score in a 31-26 defeat. If Wales play with similar commitment to that shown against the French, and add a little more stamina, then the gap should be wider this time.

WALES: W Proctor (Llanelli); S Hill (Cardiff), G Thomas (Bridgend), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Bridgend); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), J Davies (Neath), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), D Jones ( Cardiff), H Taylor (Cardiff), S Williams (Neath), K Jones (Ebbw Vale). Replacements: L Davies (Cardiff), A Thomas (Swansea), P John (Pontypridd), M Williams (Pontypridd), S John (Llanelli), B Williams (Neath).

ITALY: M Ravazzolo (Calvisano); P Vaccari (Calvisano), S Bordon (Rovigo), I Francescato (Treviso), L Manteri (Treviso); D Dominguez (Milan), A Troncon (Treviso); M Cuttitta (Milan, capt), C Orlandi (Milan), F Properzi Curti (Milan), P Pedroni (Milan), D Scaglia (Treviso), A Sgorlon (Treviso), C Checchinato (Treviso), O Arancio (Milan). Replacements: A Moscardi (Treviso), A Castellani (Treviso), R Rampazzo (Padova), G Guidi (Livorno), F Mazzariol (Treviso), J Pertile (Rugby Roma).

Referee: C Spannenberg (South Africa).