Wales seek comfort in home advantage

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Joe Calzaghe will lead the teams on at the Millennium Stadium today and so a Welshman will receive the hero's welcome they love to honour their reigning champions with in these parts. The 15 countrymen in behind, however, may not be so lucky. For there has been a growing alarm in Wales that the nightmare prospect of a Grand Slam being immediately followed by a wooden spoon will become reality and, in the wake of "player power" and "Ruddockgate", blind faith has been replaced by suspicion.

Still, they have been consoling themselves in the belief that home advantage will see them through, as Italy have yet to win on the road in the Six Nations. "We must conquer our fear of winning," said the visiting coach, Pierre Berbizier, although it could be Wales' fear of losing that will prove the greatest burden.

They are real fears, too, because Italy offer so much more than the naïve exuberance of three years ago when Wales were added to the list of Roman ruins. While results signify which country has made the most progress since that 30-22 upheaval, the fact that of the 2003 line-ups as many as six Welshman start today compared to only one Italian - the captain, Marco Bortolami - hints at an entirely different story.

It says that Italy have ripped up what was not working and replaced it with something that does. Brave defeats to Ireland, England and for an hour against France have given support to that argument. They are not, and never will be, enough, though. "We really want to make more than an impact here," said Bortolami. "All the acclaim for our displays against Ireland, England was good, but we want more than that - we want to win a game now."

Wales do not need to be warned and are aware where they will be targeted. When you hear a Grand Slam winner declaring "we will not be intimidated" by the Italian forwards you just know confidence in a pack is low, especially when the words of bravado are emanating from the quivering lips of the youngest member, the hooker Rhys Thomas. "We can be more than a match for them," said the 23-year-old, his face scrunched up, his fists clenched, his chest puffed out, his knees knocking.

Whether they will need to be, of course, is another matter. With their fly-half Stephen Jones back in harness after recovering from the dead leg that led to Gavin Henson's Dublin calamity, Wales should have far too much outside for the Italians who still look a bit dead of leg themselves in the final quarter of both pitch and game. Plenty of pressure will be on the captain Michael Owen at No 8, and Colin Charvis and Martyn Williams on the flanks, to ensure the quick ball their backs thrive on and if they do so a choir of relief may yet arise.

That is all it will be, though, and not the cacophony of support Scott Johnson has called for. "This is when we need them, in our hour of need," said the caretaker coach. It could just be 80 minutes of need.

Millennium Stadium teams


15 L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets)

14 M Jones (Scarlets)

13 H Luscombe (N-G Dragons)

12 M Watkins (Scarlets)

11 S Williams (Ospreys)

10 S Jones (Clermont Auvergne)

9 D Peel (Scarlets)

1 D Jones (Ospreys)

2 R Thomas (Cardiff Blues)

3 A Jones (Ospreys)

4 I Gough (Dragons)

5 R Sidoli (Blues)

6 C Charvis (Newcastle)

7 M Williams (Blues)

8 M Owen (capt, Dragons)

REPLACEMENTS: 16 M Davies (Gloucester); 17 G Jenkins (Blues); 18 J Thomas (Ospreys); 19 A Popham (Scarlets); 20 M Phillips (Blues); 21 N Robinson (Blues); 22 G Henson (Ospreys)


15 E Galon (Overmach Parma)

14 P Canavosio (Calvisano)

13 G Canale (Clermont Auvergne)

12 Mi Bergamasco (St Français)

11 L Nitoglia (Calvisano)

10 R Pez (Perpignan)

9 P Griffen (Calvisano)

1 S Perugini (Calvisano)

2 F Ongaro (Treviso)

3 C Nieto (Viadana)

4 S Dellape (Agen)

5 M Bortolami (capt, Narbonne)

6 S Parisse (Stade Français)

7 M Zaffiri (Calvisano)

8 J Sole (Viadana)

REPLACEMENTS: 16 C Festuccia (Gran Parma); 17 A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila); 18 M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano); 19 C Del Fava (Bourgoin); 20 A Zanni (Calvisano); 21 S Picone (Treviso); 22 C Stoica (Montpellier)

REFEREE: J Jutge (France)

KICK-OFF: 1.30pm (BBC1)