George North farewell in wooden-spoon decider – Wales v Italy talking points

By Sports Desk March 15, 2024

Wales and Italy will contest the Guinness Six Nations’ least-wanted “prize” in Cardiff on Saturday.

Avoiding the mythical wooden spoon for finishing bottom of the table is front and centre for both countries, with Wales four points adrift of their fifth-placed opponents.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points heading into the game.

Wooden spoon stirs the pot

Wales have not finished last on the Six Nations log since 2003, when a 33-5 defeat against France in Paris meant they lost all five games under head coach Steve Hansen. The Wales team that day included players like Iestyn Harris, Gareth Thomas, Dwayne Peel, Gethin Jenkins and Martyn Williams as they suffered a heaviest reversal of the tournament. Wales have won the Six Nations title on six occasions since then, including four Grand Slams, which highlights this season’s demise, while Italy are striving to avoid a ninth successive wooden spoon after Scotland had that dubious distinction in 2015.

Farewell to George North

From the moment he arrived on the Test match stage as an 18-year-old against South Africa in 2010, North has proved an inspired presence for Wales and the British and Irish Lions. He will retire from international rugby after Saturday’s game, having helped Wales win four Six Nations titles – including two Grand Slams – and played in four World Cups. His Wales try-count stands at 47 in 120 games, and he has averaged almost one touchdown per game against Italy, with his sizeable haul including a hat-trick in 2015. North deserves every accolade he will receive as a modern-day Wales great whose pace, power and try-scoring prowess made him box-office entertainment.

Wales’ rebuild will continue

Whatever happens against Italy, short-term pain must be eclipsed by potential long-term gain as Wales head coach Warren Gatland continues moulding a new-look squad. Since the World Cup, Gatland has seen Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar retire from Test rugby, with North to follow, Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe head to club rugby in Japan, while Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake and Taulupe Faletau were among Six Nations injury absentees. Gatland has paraded five new caps during the tournament – including the exciting Cardiff trio of Cameron Winnett, Alex Mann and Mackenzie Martin – and he asked Welsh supporters for patience that has so far been reciprocated.

Italy need to do a job

Italy have shown some impressive form in this season’s Six Nations, beating Scotland, drawing with France away from home and going down by just three points to England. The victory over Scotland was their first Six Nations triumph in Rome since 2013, and players like centre pairing Juan Ignacio Brex and Tommaso Menoncello, wing Louis Lynagh and captain Michele Lamaro have excelled. The challenge now is to produce another performance of the type that almost defeated France and then accounted for Scotland. They return to Cardiff two years after claiming a dramatic 22-21 success, and there will be expectation in the Azzurri camp of a repeat performance.

Cardiff no longer a fortress

The Principality Stadium has played host to some memorable Welsh rugby moments, with Six Nations title triumphs and Grand Slam glory topping that list. Recently though, the Cardiff venue has seemingly lost its aura. Wales have suffered six successive Six Nations defeats there, with all five of their championship opponents winning on the road. It is 13 losses and one draw from the last 20 capped internationals at home, with victories only being recorded against Canada, Fiji, Australia, Scotland, Argentina and England (World Cup warm-up match) in full internationals during that time. The atmosphere remains among world rugby’s finest, but opponents are no longer fazed by what awaits them.

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