Italian steel threatens Hansen's farewell

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The Independent Online

Win or lose against Italy today Steve Hansen, the departing Wales coach, will have to wait a while before finding out how far he has gone toward replenishing the fire in the Dragons.

Win or lose against Italy today Steve Hansen, the departing Wales coach, will have to wait a while before finding out how far he has gone toward replenishing the fire in the Dragons.

He should get a glimpse when he returns to Cardiff with New Zealand in November as an assistant to Graham Henry, but it is more likely to be at least 12 months before any accurate assessment can be made - when the British and Irish Lions tour the Land of the Long White Cloud in the summer of 2005.

One thing is for certain Hansen's track record going into today's game - his 31st, and final Test in charge - is not the yardstick by which he would like his 25-month tenure as head coach to be measured.

An 11th win would be welcome, but the composition of that Lions tour party and, more critically, the number of Welsh players who make the trip would be a far more telling benchmark of what Hansen has achieved in his brief reign.

He succeeded Henry in February two years ago and faced a difficult task. "When I took over we were a hell of a way back in the playing field compared to the major rugby nations," Hansen explained. "All the world-class players had come to the end of their careers, we had to start again. But we have now given France, New Zealand and England (twice) some real games. We are now not that far away. Slowly but surely we are getting there, putting in place the process that will allow us to uncover more world-class players. There is a lot to look forward to, but it doesn't happen overnight. It took England 12 years to win the World Cup."

Hansen has already identified four potential world-class players in his present crop - the lock Michael Owen, flankers Jonathan Thomas and Dafydd Jones and the prop Gethin Jenkins - players who could well make the Lions party in 14 months' time, and he is convinced that the quality to be found at Under-19 and Under-21 level coupled with the regionalisation of the game in Wales promises more. So confident is the New Zealander in Wales' future that he predicts: "Come the next Six Nations, if the Welsh boys continue to make the improvements they have been making and play really well, then I would expect a lot of them to get picked for the Lions."

But that is the longer term, it is today's match which holds centre stage. "Italy are a big danger," says Hansen, mindful of the fact that although Wales won their World Cup encounter last autumn, the Dragons were well beaten in Rome last year. "They are very good up front and solid behind. They have big, hard-running backs and play a power game."

The Italian defence is also sound and will test the mettle and ingenuity of the Wales backs. The return therefore of Iestyn Harris, who came through a fitness test yesterday, means that the Dragons should be able to breathe fire out wide. It is up to the forwards to blow hot in the set piece and the line-out.

Italy are looking for their first away victory in the tournament and nothing, not even the emotional cauldron that is the Millennium Stadium, will deter them from attempting to achieve it. Prop Leandro Castrogiovanni said: "This is the game we really want to win, we have not forgotten the defeat in the World Cup. We are not scared of the 75,000 people at the Millennium Stadium. We will play our game like always. We go there to win, nothing else."

But they will have to do so without talismanic lock Carlo Cecchinato. An arthritic ankle means he misses the game and is replaced by 20-year-old debutant Carlo Del Fava, the South African-raised forward who has recently served a two-year drug ban. Italy coach, John Kirwan, said: "It was a mistake of youth and he has served his dues."

There had better be some fire with the Dragons' smoke, or Hansen's farewell could turn out to be a damp squib.