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Italy v Wales: Will there be smiles on the piazza navona tomorrow?

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: February 22, 2013

Italy

Will Wales fans be dancing on the Piazza Navona tomorrow?

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LIKE a red Vespa weaving in and out of the Roman traffic, Wales are making progress once again, but Rob Howley is adamant his side must have their wits about them in the Italian capital tomorrow.

"It's one of the toughest places to go in Europe," he said.

It is if you're a pedestrian in the city.

As Bill Bryson writes of Roman drivers in his book Neither Here Nor There: "It isn't that they want to hit you, as they do in Paris, but they just will hit you.

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"This is partly because Italian drivers pay no attention to anything happening on the road ahead of them. They are too busy tooting their horns, gesturing wildly, preventing other vehicles from cutting into their lane, making love, smacking the children in the back seat and eating a sandwich the size of a baseball bat, often all at once.

"So the first time they are likely to notice you is in the rear-view mirror as something lying in the road behind them.

"Even if they do see you, they won't stop. There is nothing personal in this. It's just that they believe that if something is in the way they must move it, whether it is a telephone pole or a visitor."

But the rugby?

A quick glance at the record books would lead some to dispute Howley's claim about Rome being a difficult venue for a visiting side.

Since 2000, Italy have hosted 33 games in the Six Nations, won nine and lost 24, a success rate of just over 27 per cent, not so much a house of pain as a house of gain for opposition teams.

But look closer.

In their last four home matches in the Six Nations, the Italians have emerged triumphant three times, giving them an impressive 75 per cent strike rate in front of their own fans. It may not be anything to rival Inter at the San Siro in their pomp, but it is none too shabby, either.

The last time they played in the Eternal City, against France at the start of the month, the Azzurri produced a display of such heart and fight that the gladiators of another age and another venue, over the road in the Colosseum, would have been pleased to put their name to it.

Yet two weeks later Jacques Brunel's side were destroyed on the road by Scotland.

They are bewilderingly inconsistent and are bound to miss the suspended Sergio Parisse, a player who has often done the work of three men for them, but Wales would be wise to expect a severe test.

Howley has stuck by the 15 who delivered for him in Paris 13 days ago, but several players will know if they don't back up their performances they will come under pressure for the Scotland game on March 9, with Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton on the bench this weekend.

In particular, Justin Tipuric needs a big game.

He has earned his Test place on merit, having been the best openside in Wales by some distance over the past six months, but it has been noticeable that the coaches have wasted few opportunities to acclaim Warburton in recent days, with Howley using the team announcement to call him the "ultimate professional who has been fantastic in training this week".

The message is clear: the selectors have far from sold their shares in Warburton.

Nor should they have, for he is an excellent player.

But Tipuric's admirers will be anxious that those who pick the side might look to recall the squad captain at the first opportunity from here on in.

Whether that is the case or not, it is up to the Trebanos man to give such a good account of himself that there is no doubt over his continued selection.

It being an unfair world, Andrew Coombs will also be under scrutiny, despite being outstanding in the championship so far.

His problem is that Alun Wyn Jones is back, and at no point in his career has Jones shown any inclination to linger on replacements' benches for extended periods.

Jones's regional team-mate Scott Baldwin recently highlighted his skipper's hunger after more than three months out of rugby. "He took four people out at the first ruck," Baldwin recalled after the game with Ulster. "It was a massive performance."

Jones doesn't just bring set-piece expertise, huge commitment and a 90-minute engine to proceedings. He also offers unbreakable mental strength. He can be playing superbly but if the occasion demands he can still squeeze extra out of himself. That kind of stuff separates the best from the rest.

And it is why Coombs will need another stormer to hold his place.

Elsewhere in the pack, for the first time in many years Adam Jones is reading in the papers that he needs to pick up his game. The call has come after he incurred the wrath of the referee against France, with George Clancy awarding five penalties against him.

Five penalties, mind you.

It was like the safest driver in Wales being pulled up for speeding five times in an afternoon.

There again, the set-piece was that much of a mystery in Paris that Miss Marple would have given up on it.

Jones has built his reputation as a world-class prop over 87 caps and close on ten years of set-piece excellence. He has seen off challenges at the highest level against the likes of South Africa, New Zealand, France and Argentina.

Why would he suddenly become a serial scrum transgressor?

It didn't add up and the Osprey is bound to want to reassert his scrummaging authority.

Win and Howley's side will head to Murrayfield with momentum, eyeing a potential title showdown against England in Cardiff a week later.

Lose and it isn't so much a silver pot that will occupy the minds of Howley's squad as a wooden spoon.

There will be calls for culls of coaches and players, maybe even firing squads at dawn. If he knows what's good for him, the office cat at Wales's base in the Vale of Glamorgan might be advised to keep his head down. You sometimes feel it isn't so much a good coach that Welsh rugby needs as a good psychologist.

Watch BBC's Scrum V programme after a win and witness everyone cheering as if world domination has been achieved. Even mildly positive comments from the guests are celebrated enthusiastically by the studio audience.

Then cut to the same show after a defeat.

Let's just say party hats are not the order of the day.

Indeed, were a shrink to pay a visit he may cut to the chase and throw around a few happy pills to lift the gloom.

But that's Welsh rugby in 2013, teetering on the brink of a revival or a nervous breakdown.

The expectation is that it will be Welsh smiles on the Piazza Navona tomorrow evening, with Italy's lack of quality behind likely to cost them.

But Wales can't take anything for granted.

In Rome, visitors to the city can easily be hit off the road.

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