Daily Mail

Wooden Spoon showdown sums up Wales’ grim fall from grace

Gatland desperate to beat Italy in clash between winless teams


Adefeat in Rome today would see Wales drop out of the top 10 of World Rugby’s official rankings for the first time since they were introduced two decades ago.

Such a scenario is a real possibilit­y and shows how far Welsh rugby has fallen in what has been a painful 12 months. Italy will be sensing blood at the Stadio Olimpico.

You have to go back to 2003 for the last time Wales finished bottom of the Six Nations pile having lost all five of their matches. that was also the year rugby introduced its rankings system.

for a brief period in 2019, , Wales were worldd No 1. Now they are nowhere where near that level andnd a heavy loss to Italy aly could see them m drop down to 13th place.

these are grim times for those of a Welsh persuasion with the country’s game in trouble on and off the field. How w Warren Gatland nd and his players need eed a win in the eternal ternal City.

after defeats by Ireland, Scotland and england, Wales must come out on top against the also winless Italy if they are to end this Six Nations tournament with a crumb of comfort.

It will not be easy. Kieran Crowley’s azzurri are upwardly mobile and will be a stiff challenge, even without their injured star man ange Capuozzo.

Wales head coach Gatland is still searching for a winning formula after returning to the top job in december. He has chopped and changed his side in the Championsh­ip to date as he finds out what the next generation of Welsh talent are capable of and manages his battered old guard. Wales’s team for Rome looks, on the face of it, potentiall­y vulnerable. With dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny absent, Owen Williams will kick goals from No 10 with Joe Hawkins as back-up. Neither has kicked a single point for their country. Of course,co the talent in ththe Welsh side is stillstil significan­t and theyth undoubtedl­y haveh enough in theirt ranks to achieve a victory. But, with confidence low after 12 defeats in their last 15 matches and WelshW rugby’s boardroomb­oa circus ongoingong­o in the background, ground their players aren’t in ggreat nick. Gatland admitted this week there had been a ‘significan­t split’ in his camp over whether or not to strike for the england game and that ‘time was the healer’ in sorting out the divisions.

Wales will have to be united if they are to win today.

‘We are not quite where we want to be,’ said Gatland, who has recalled scrum-half Rhys Webb as one of six changes to his side for Rome. ‘We’ve still got a lot of work to do.’ Gatland is well aware of the scale of the challenge in his second stint as Welsh coach. He is desperate to avoid a winless Six Nations and finishing bottom with the Wooden Spoon.

‘I’ll be honest with you it is not something I have thought about,’ said Webb of that possibilit­y, as he prepares for his first Six Nations start in six years.

‘We know it has been a tough campaign. as the tournament is going on we are getting better and better. We’ve done our homework on Italy. they are one hell of a team at the moment.’

Of Gatland’s latest rotation, Webb is the headline selection. When he moved to toulon, the scrum-half became the highest profile victim of Wales’s controvers­ial 60-cap rule.

that meant he was ineligible to play in the 2019 World Cup. Since then, Webb has been on the internatio­nal periphery. Now, he is back.

‘a lot has happened in those six years,’ Webb said. ‘I don’t regret anything. I’m over the moon to get the No 9 jersey. It’s something I’ve worked very hard to get hold of.

‘that ambition has always been there. I’ve never once thought about packing in.’ In his time away from test rugby, Webb has taken his three boys to Principali­ty Stadium to watch Wales.

Now, Regan, Jesse and Remi will be able to see their dad strut his stuff on the field. the Webb family will all be in Rome hoping, like all Wales supporters, for a win.

‘My family have followed me all the way,’ said Webb, who is out of contract at the end of this season and is one of 90 Welsh- based players still unsure of their futures amid financial uncertaint­y.

talks continue between the Welsh Rugby Union and the country’s four regions although the focus today will be on the field, for 80 minutes at least.

Webb added: ‘Now my kids are a little bit older they keep on asking me “Why aren’t you wearing the No 9 jersey?” Now daddy is No 9, so they know. It’s massive. It’s nice to be back.’

Webb is indeed back, but that will count for nothing unless he helps Wales to a much-needed victory in Rome.

the prospect of a fourth straight loss in 2023 is unthinkabl­e.

 ?? SHUTTERSTO­CK ?? Comeback: Rhys Webb will return to the Welsh side
SHUTTERSTO­CK Comeback: Rhys Webb will return to the Welsh side
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