Gatland scripts power play to write off Italy

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The Independent Online

The message alert on Warren Gatland's mobile beeped the other day. "Graham Henry was the 'Great Redeemer', Jose Mourinho was the 'Special One', well what shall we call you?" read the text from a mischievous friend. Gatland replied: "Just call me, 'You Lucky Bastard – At The Moment'."

Yes, the Kiwi has already been in Wales long enough to realise that if what has become known as "Gatland's front-row gamble" backfires against Italy today then it might just become a case of "You Dopey Bastard". And "At The Moment" will not even come into it.

When the bubble bursts in the Principality it does so with a hiss of derision that tracks down the culprit with merciless intent. Especially when the majority of the nation has convinced itself that the Grand Slam is but three games away.

Yesterday, as his squad were put through their final paces at the Millennium Stadium, Gatland was not prepared to say whether he has indeed taken a punt on selecting an entirely new front row for this encounter or by reinstating the Scarlets half-back partnership at the expense of the younger, and most feel sharper, Ospreys double act of Mike Phillips and James Hook. "We'll only find that out after 80 minutes, won't we?" he said.

In truth, the word from base camp is that Gatland is not anticipating the home set-piece to give an inch to the supposedly superior Italian scrummagers and certainly not Rhys Thomas, the inexperienced tighthead, who has had the finger pointed at him in the Welsh media this week but who, apparently, in training has more than justified his coach's faith. If that is so then the visitors could be in trouble.

For an indicator of how Italy would have it this afternoon, look no further than their request to have the roof open. Rain is not forecast, but if it pours – as it has been known to in these parts – and the pitch is reduced to a mudheap that would suit Nick Mallett very much. "It'll be warfare out there," acknowledged Gatland. "It's going to be very tough for us, very physical. The Italians probably feel that with their experience they can dominate us at scrum time and around the fringes. So we've spent a lot of time focusing on that and ensuring our defence is strong."

What does seem certain is that Wales will not fail because of complacency and not just because of the new men playing for their places. "You've only got to look at Wales' results against this opposition the last two years: a loss in Rome and a draw here," said Gatland. "If you underestimate these guys you're going to get caught. We've done a lot of preparation and looked very closely at the Italians."

One of the areas to come under particular scrutiny has been the breakdown, where Gatland has made no secret of his conviction that the Azzurri get away with blue murder, "in terms of going off their feet, both on attack and defence". He will therefore seek out the English referee, Dave Pearson, in the hour before kick-off – as his is right – to express these concerns. Italy have enough up front without this advantage.

But while it is true their forwards have more than held their own in their narrow defeats against Ireland and England, in behind they have held little but their heads in their hands. Andrea Masi may have his supporters at centre, but at fly-half his fan club seems to have a membership of one and it is conceivable that Andrea Marcato will be called upon to step up from full-back to pull whatever strings are still dangling.

Even allowing for the talents of the young Trevisan, it is hard to look down the respective backlines and envisage parity, although Gatland is keen to stress that it will not be as simple as moving the ball wide to Shane Williams and the other twinkle-toed flyers. "Getting width on the game will be difficult because of the way Italy defend," he said. "We are aware of that. Jonathan Davies got it right a couple of weeks ago when saying 'to go wide you've got to go forward first'. That's what we need to do."

They are more than up to it and so Gatland's stock will soar yet further. Luck should not be required.

Today's Cardiff teams

Wales

15 L Byrne (Ospreys)

14 M Jones (Scarlets)

13 T Shanklin (Cardiff)

12 G Henson (Ospreys)

11 S Williams (Ospreys)

10 S Jones (Scarlets)

9 D Peel (Scarlets)

1 G Jenkins (Cardiff)

2 M Rees (Scarlets)

3 R Thomas (Dragons)

4 I Gough(Ospreys)

5 I Evans (Ospreys)

6 J Thomas (Ospreys)

7 M Williams (Cardiff)

8 R Jones (Ospreys, capt)

Replacements: 16 H Bennett (Ospreys), 17 Duncan Jones (Ospreys), 18 Deiniol Jones (Cardiff), 19 G Delve (Gloucester), 20 M Phillips (Cardiff), 21 J Hook (Ospreys), 22 S Parker (Ospreys).

Italy

15 A Marcato (Treviso)

14 A Scarbi (Treviso)

13 G Canale (C Auvergne)

12 Mirco Bergamasco (Std Fr)

11 E Galon (O Parma)

10 A Masi (Biarritz)

9 S Picone (Treviso)

1 S Perugino (Toulouse)

2 L Ghiraldini (Calvisano)

3 M Castrogiovanni (Leics)

4 S Dellape (Biarritz)

5 C Del Fava (Ulster)

6 J Sole (Viadana)

7 Mauro Bergamasco (Std Fr)

8 S Parisse (Std Fr, capt)

Replacements: 16 C Festuccia (Rac Metro), 17 A Lo Cicero (Rac Metro), 18 M Bortolami (Gloucester), 19 A Zanni (Calvisano), 20 P Travagli (O Parma), 21 P Buso (Calvisano), 22 E Patrizio (Petrarca).

Kick-off: 3pm (BBC 1)

Referee: D Pearson (England)

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