Wales ooze confidence on road to the Slam decider

Gatland's team will not take Italy lightly but nation expects win to set up another clean sweep

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland's task is not so much to ignite fire in the belly of his young Dragons, but somehow to keep a lid on the expectation bubbling inside the Millennium Stadium before today's game against Italy.

Wales have little to gain and everything to lose in a fixture that they have never lost in Cardiff. The match is regarded by most – not least in the Valleys – as a stepping stone towards a Grand Slam and title decider against France at home next week. Wales, however, have come unstuck before at the hands of the Azzurri and Gatland has learned from his own past mistakes. The New Zealander has therefore selected his strongest possible team, despite concerns over the centre Jamie Roberts.

Despite all this, rarely have Wales been at such ease with themselves, and the comforts of home are nothing compared to the comforts of stability on and off the field under Gatland.

Their only disruption is the loss to injury of their captain, the openside flanker Sam Warburton; the loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins therefore takes the armband for a fourth time, still seeking a first win when in charge. Jenkins said: "The expectation is all on us but we always knew that was the case. The emphasis this week has been about believing in ourselves and believing how good we can be if we play well. We have to deal with the expectation of the public both mentally and emotionally but we have a real belief. If we're within touching distance, we know we have the players who can score."

Having dug deep into their mental and physical reserves in Dublin and Twickenham, either side of a home victory over Scotland, Wales are marching towards the title. A third Grand Slam in eight years, following the successes of 2005 and 2008, would match the achievements of the likes of Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Gerald Davies in the great Welsh teams of the 1970s.

Gatland said: "This team is a real credit to Wales and Welsh rugby. The Six Nations is such a tough tournament to win. You get momentum and confidence from a couple of wins and, as we've seen this week in training, the players grow an extra arm and a leg when they win.

"It isn't just a game or a tournament; the Six Nations is more than that. You have to cope with all the pressure and it is very enjoyable when you are winning, but you end up dodging bullets and pulling knives out of your back when you're losing. But there is a massive prize on offer. A lot of our players can not only look at this year, but at what could be achieved between now and the 2015 World Cup."

If anything, Wales are getting stronger. Having seen Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris return from injury in successive weeks, Gatland is able to name an all-Lions front row, Jenkins, Adam Jones and Matthew Rees, for the first time since 2010. Little wonder, then, that even Italy's talismanic No 8 and captain, Sergio Parisse, said his team faced an "impossible" mission in Cardiff.

Parisse said: "We beat Wales in 2007 in Rome but at this moment I can't say that we really can beat Wales because they are playing fantastic rugby. Going to Cardiff, to the Millennium Stadium, against this team is probably something impossible for us."

Such flattery is intended to heighten the pressure on young Welsh shoulders, the majority of which have never been in this position. That includes the fly-half Rhys Priestland, who has experienced the focus of attention that comes with wearing the red No 10 jersey following a poor performance at Twickenham a fortnight ago.

He said: "My celebrations at the end were a token gesture. I just wanted to get back into the changing room and get the disappointment out of my head. I was pleased to win but it was definitely my poorest performance in a Welsh shirt. The coaches said everyone has bad games but it wasn't much consolation. Hopefully it will make me a stronger person and I'm grateful for the chance to repay their faith."

Talk of the Grand Slam has been banned within the Wales camp – come four o'clock this afternoon there may simply be no escaping it.

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