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Wales risk Six Nations whitewash as North bows out against Italy

Wales face Italy this weekend in the Rugby Six Nations. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP

George North is set for an emotional farewell to international rugby against Italy in Cardiff on Saturday as Wales bid to avoid a first Six Nations whitewash in more than 20 years.

Wales became accustomed to Six Nations success during Warren Gatland’s first spell as coach from 2007 to 2019, winning four titles, including three Grand Slams.

But Wales finished fifth last season after Gatland replaced fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac.

And if Wales fail to beat Italy at the Principality Stadium, they will end the tournament at the foot of the table for the first time since 2003 when another New Zealander, Steve Hansen, was at the helm.

Defeat would mean Wales had lost all five of their matches in a single Six Nations — a first since that woeful campaign of 21 years ago.

North made his bombshell retirement announcement moments after Gatland had recalled the 31-year-old centre on Wednesday following Wales’s 45-24 loss at home to France last weekend.

Saturday’s match will now be North’s 121st and final Wales appearance, with the powerhouse back’s current tally of 47 tries for his county bettered only by Shane Williams’s 58.

But while North, who will be moving to French club Provence next season, said he wanted to “live my dream again one more time”, he was well aware of the context of Saturday’s match.

“I said (to the squad), let’s not get weird…I asked them for nothing to change from what we always do. For us, it is a must-win game and the focus should never be on one individual.”

North is the latest big-name Wales player to step down from international rugby over the past 10 months, following Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny.

‘Find out about people’

Gatland, however, said those who remained had to step up against Italy.

“You find out about people in weeks like this when you are under a bit of pressure, how you respond to that pressure, who is going to put their hand up, who is going to accept the responsibility,” he explained.

North’s return should give Wales a greater physical presence after they were simply overpowered by the strength of France’s bench. 

Italy will kick-off in Cardiff buoyed by a dramatic 31-29 victory over Scotland in Rome, the Azzurri’s first home Six Nations win in 11 years.

They will be without Ange Capuozzo, who broke a finger against Scotland, as they try to avoid finishing last for the ninth straight season and win two games in a Six Nations for the first time since 2013.

Capuozzo was key to Italy’s triumph in Cardiff two years ago, setting up Edoardo Padovani’s decisive late try. 

Lorenzo Pani replaces Capuozzo at full-back while wing Louis Lynagh, the son of Australia rugby great Michael Lynagh, gets his second cap for the country of his birth after a try-scoring debut against Scotland.

Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney, the son of a Welsh father and Italian mother, starts against Wales.

“It’s an extra motivation that’s super positive that can make a player play at more than 100 percent of his level,” said Italy coach Gonzalo Quesada.

But the former Argentina playmaker added: “Steve, even if he was not half Welsh, I think he was the best option to start this game. The way he came off the bench in the last two games, he had an impact.”

Quesada has warned Italy “the environment waiting for us in Cardiff will be such a test”.

But even if the Azzurri lose on Saturday, Italian rugby still appears to be heading in the right direction.

Their clubs are increasingly competitive in the United Rugby Championship, while their Under-20s have enjoyed wins over both France and Scotland in this season’s youth Six Nations.

By contrast, Wales great Jonathan Davies said while the national side had “over-achieved” under Gatland, a lack of investment in youth development was now “coming home to roost”.

Former fly-half Davies, writing for Wales Online, added: “There’s no planning…It’s no fault of the players. They haven’t been given the help they should have.”

Standings provided by Sofascore

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