Italy are not favourites to beat Wales – but they should be

Wales players look dejected during the Guinness Six Nations match at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Picture date: Saturday February 3, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story RUGBYU Wales

Bookmakers, generally speaking, tend to know what they are doing when it comes to setting odds, as you may have noticed at this week’s Cheltenham Festival. If a horse’s odds are as short as 1/2 then do not be surprised if it goes on to win easily by six lengths (looking at you, Ballyburn).

Ireland went to Twickenham last week as 12-point favourites and no one really batted an eyelid given how events had panned out in the Six Nations leading up to that point, with England coming off their error-filled display at Murrayfield and Ireland going for back-to-back Grand Slams. If you saw the resulting odds and recognised an opportunity with your wallet – given that England, despite their often inept attack, had posed Ireland problems in recent Tests while being hindered by red cards – then you probably went on to have a very enjoyable evening.

The first game of this weekend’s ‘Super Saturday’ would appear to offer a similar chance to beat the bookies given that Italy, somewhat surprisingly, are six-point underdogs against winless Wales in Cardiff. This is despite the Azzurri coming off a draw against France and a win over Scotland in their past two matches in which we have seen two trends; the squad gradually absorbing Gonzalo Quesada’s new tactical approach following his arrival after the Rugby World Cup from Stade Français, and a crop of new, young talents growing in confidence and giving teams a run for their money.

Italy players celebrate at the end of the Six Nations rugby union match between Italy and Scotland at Rome's Olympic stadium, Saturday, March 9, 2024. Italy won 31-29
Italy have had their best Six Nations showing in years - Alfredo Falcone/AP

The only game so far where Italy have been disgraced was away in Dublin in the second game of Quesada’s tenure. Let’s face it, they are far from the only side to go there and struggle. The rest of their performances – the narrow defeat at home by England, scrapping for their lives with that draw in Lille against France and finally last weekend’s historic first Six Nations win in Rome for 11 years – have provided cause for optimism.

Have we been here before? Absolutely. Two years have passed since Italy stunned a strong Wales side in Cardiff, introducing the world to the talents of Paolo Garbisi and Ange Capuozzo under previous head coach Kieran Crowley. And while they would go on to defeat Australia for the first time that autumn – you can decide how much stock to put into a win over the current state of the Wallabies – the 2023 Six Nations and Rugby World Cup were a flop, capped by that disastrous 96-17 pool-stage defeat by New Zealand.

Why then do this time Italy feel different, honestly. That 2022 win in Cardiff was embodied by Capuozzo and Monty Ioane running rings around Wales, particularly Capuozzo’s scintillating break late on to create Edoardo Padovani’s matchwinner. Crowley afterwards even stressed that Italy’s first Six Nations win for 36 games had to be the start of something, not a flash in the pan.

‌The roar in Rome last week after the final whistle against Scotland was astonishing, pure catharsis having waited so long to see the Azzurri win again on home soil in this competition. Yet Michele Lamaro, their captain, while unquestionably proud was also a measured voice of calm.

“It means a lot because it’s a win that doesn’t come from just one game where we played well – it has been two or three years where we have been working so hard to get to the point where we can compete with other teams in this tournament. I think that is the most important thing,” Lamaro said. “The last game we won against Wales in Cardiff, we were really underdogs and came from nowhere, we didn’t play well in that tournament. But we have improved [in this one] from the first game until now.

“We are hungry. We really want to bring this team to the next level. We fully believe in what we do, the hard work we put in. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Michele Lamaro of Italy celebrates at the end of during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between Italy and Scotland at Stadio Olimpico on March 09, 2024 in Rome, Italy.
There are, perhaps, reasons to believe that this is the start of something for Italy - Timothy Rogers/Getty Images

Lamaro himself is one of many reasons to be excited. Italy’s scrum monstered Scotland’s in the second-half and the pack will have licked their lips watching the tape of France demolish Wales in that area last Sunday. There will be no Capuozzo in Cardiff, ruled out with a broken finger, but Italy have added Louis Lynagh’s dynamism to their back-three and when Paolo Odogwu is fit again have some interesting discussions ahead of them. Ross Vintcent, the Exeter back-row has been explosive. Federico Ruzza bullies opponents. Danilo Fischetti remains a wonderfully talented loosehead prop.

Perhaps the reason why Italy feel different this time are the number of players in the mix for a hypothetical team of the tournament; Giacomo Nicotera at hooker, Vintcent, maybe Garbisi who, while a touch hot and cold, is still just 23 with enormous potential. It is the centre partnership however where Italy look strong, the combination of Tommaso Menoncello and Juan Ignacio Brex rivalling the best in the competition this year. Menoncello, just 21, might be the best talent of the lot with his ability to crack the gain line in attack and some ribs in defence.

Under Quesada the flair is still there but tempered with accuracy and control, with Italy making the fewest metres and carries in this Six Nations and also ranking second for breakdown steals behind Ireland. A win in Cardiff would make it the first time Italy have ever gone three games unbeaten in the Six Nations. And it would also send a message about the potential of a young group we should all be paying attention to.

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