Wales v Italy preview
Wales v Italy
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Saturday October 26, 4.30pm (UK time)
Sunday October 27, 2.30am (AEDT); 1.30am (AEST)
Directly following the World Cup curtain-raiser between England and Australia at Cardiff's Millenium Stadium will be a clash of two of the more mysterious sides in this year's tournament.
Both Wales and Italy have good reason to believe they can go deep in this competition – the Welsh have long-standing history on their side while the Italians are coming off arguably their greatest ever result in rugby league: a stunning one-point win over England.
In some ways this match will echo the England v Australia clash, as another match-up pitting Super League stars against their counterparts from the NRL. The Wales team is dominated by Super League players (many English-born), while Italy boast several high-quality NRL veterans.
Wales failed to qualify for the 2008 tournament so are keen to make amends this time around. They have a strong record at the World Cup, having reached the semi-finals in 1995 and 2000 – at one point leading Australia 20-8 during the 2000 semi-finals before being run down late in the second half.
The Italians can't match that World Cup history – in fact their previous record at the tournament is non-existent. Yet they'll start favourites in this match thanks to their shock 15-14 win over England last weekend.
Watch Out Italy: Wales have a strong forward pack, led by veteran prop and skipper Craig Kopczak and Super League-winning Wigan forwards Gil Dudson and Ben Flower. Second-rower Tyson Frizell is their sole NRL representative in the squad, fresh from his first full season with the Dragons.
They also boast 13 current Super League players in their extended squad of 19 for this match, so they should have more cohesion than an Italy side that only really came together in the past fortnight.
With a home crowd behind them in their nation's capital, the Welsh will be a tough team to beat for the World Cup newcomers.
Watch Out Wales: Italy may be World Cup rookies but their players are hardly newcomers – skipper Anthony Minichiello is an 18-Test veteran with the Kangaroos and has just won the NRL premiership alongside Roosters teammate and Italy centre Aidan Guerra, while the Italians also boast two props and an entire back row with NRL experience (Anthony Laffranchi, Paul Vaughan, Mark Minicheillo, Cameron Ciraldo and Joel Riethmuller).
That's a forward pack that can certainly match it with the Welsh, and Minichiello, Guerra and Wests Tigers speedster James Tedesco arguably give the Italians the advantage in the outside backs.
Their win over England will have been a massive confidence-boost for the team's lower-grade players, like Queensland Cup halves combination Ryan Ghietti and Ben Falcone.
Key Match-Up: The front rows. Big men Craig Kopczak, Jordan James and Gil Hudson are the obvious strength of the Welsh side, possessing experience and great go-forward. But they'll be well matched by St Helens star Anthony Laffranchi and Canberra's Paul Vaughan, and if Italy can avoid being dominated up the middle then their talented players on the fringes should be strong enough to get the win.
Where It Will Be Won: Handling the pressure. This is a massive occasion for both teams – Wales are helping to launch a World Cup in front of a home crowd and will be under pressure to perform against one of rugby league's traditional lightweights, while Italy are suddenly feeling some pressure themselves after last weekend's performance and will need to handle a massive step-up in intensity on the world stage. Whichever team fails to handle the occasion could find itself on the wrong end of the scoreline.
Televised: 7Mate – Live 2:30am (NSW), 1.30am (Qld).
The Way We See It: Home ground advantage will help Wales but the talent and experience of Italy's stars can't be ignored. The Italians can match Wales's famed forward pack and last week's result showed they are capable of producing boilovers in this tournament if their opponents aren't on top of their games. Italy by six points.