By Graham Thomas
Wales youngsters Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady have been backed to come through the jeers and taunts of a Roman amphitheatre on Saturday – even if they don’t win.
The centres – both 20-years-old and with a combined tally of just five caps – will form the raw midfield defensive shield as Warren Gatland’s side bid to keep out Italy in round four of the Six Nations, a match that is live on S4C.
Former Wales centre Tom Shanklin went down that Roman road four times and lost twice – in 2003 and 2007 – but believes whatever the outcome at the Stadio Olimpico, Hawkins and Grady will eventually prosper.
Shanklin was a rookie 22-year-old back in 2003, when a team heading towards the World Cup in Australia under Steve Hansen were humbled, 30-22, by the Azzurri.
“I was still very young and raw back in 2003 and I was in the centre with Leigh Davies,” says Shanklin.
“It was the first time I’d really interacted with him because I was playing at Saracens at the time.
“That Welsh team was a mix of old and new, a bit like now. It was all about development under Steve Hansen.
“I look at Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady now and you know they are going to drop balls and miss tackles, but that is the only way they are going to learn at this level.”
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Wales were heavily criticised for losing to Italy 20 years ago with captain Colin Charvis a focus for particularly harsh judgement, for having the temerity to smile at a teammate on the bench.
Yet within six months, Wales – and Charvis – gave eventual champions England one of their trickiest matches at the World Cup in a tense quarter-final.
Shanklin was part of that improvement and believes the current Welsh squad have to forget any thoughts about what might happen if it all falls to ruins in Rome.
“The old Stadio Flaminio was like an amphitheatre and was an intimidating place in which to play. It was hugely disappointing to lose, but Steve Hansen came up to me at the end and told me I had done well.
“He always had good man-management skills, as he later showed in winning the World Cup with New Zealand, and he stopped me from worrying too much about my performance.
“I didn’t particularly think it was an embarrassment, I was just hoping to get picked for the next game.
“I didn’t worry about walking outside the house and getting recognised as one of the players who played in the first Welsh team to lose to Italy.”
The Six Nations table makes grim reading for Wales fans at present. Not only are Warren Gatland’s side bottom, but they have only scored three tries in three games – half the total managed by the Italains who are also without a victory.
For Shanklin, although he believes Hawkins and Grady will prosper, the fact that both are playing – rather than one alongside a 30-cap 24-year-old – is indicative of a development system in Wales that has gone awry.
“For me it has to start with good coaching at 16-17 years of age,” he adds.
“We need to be asking, ‘why aren’t we producing the volume and quality of players we need to feed the Welsh team’?
“Where is our next No 10? Who will play at No.8 after Taulupe Faletau retires? Who will fill the No.15 shirt after Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams finish?
“And what is going to be the right combination at centre? We’ve had about 19 different pairings in recent years.
“We also need to find a big, ball-carrying No 6. Player development is the key and that is an issue for the WRU and the clubs.”
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Capuozzo’s Injury Provides Wales with Advantage in Six Nations Match Against Italy
Wales may be thankful for small mercies – like the absence of injured diminutive Toulouse star Ange Capuozzo.
It was the devastating pace and daring adventure that Capuozzo showed last year that enabled Italy to snatch a late victory.
Italy’s coach – New Zealander Kieran Crowley – has taken plenty of plaudits for his team’s performances in defeat to France, England and Ireland – but knows he needs something more substantial, as in Championship table points, to keep the momentum going against Wales.
“We recovered well from the last game and this week we worked on the areas where we needed to improve,” said Crowley.
“We know what to expect in the match ahead against Wales and are looking forward to it and hopefully we can continue to develop the way we want to play.”
S4C: Saturday, 1.30pm – Clwb Rygbi Rhyngwladol.
Italy v Wales
Live coverage from the Stadio Olimpico, Rome of Italy v Wales in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations. K/O 2.15pm.
Neither have won a match so far, who will get their first win? 🧐
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