CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Nobody has disappointed more in this Six Nations than Wales.
Reloaded after the Rugby World Cup and full of experience, the Welsh were the favorites of many to win it all. Then they sputtered out of the gate against Ireland in Dublin and England at Twickenham, fired up too late, and are playing for second on Saturday in the final round.
Italy, which has never won in Cardiff, should feel a backlash from Wales at a stadium that was sold out before the tournament in high anticipation of the home side celebrating a fourth title in eight years.
Yet, no matter how big the Welsh run up the score, they will finish the championship with a bitter taste in their mouths, and a lasting memory that they somehow stuffed up this campaign.
Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards said he still couldn't grasp how they could out-score England three tries to one and still lose.
"To be honest, I am still in a bit of disbelief," he said. "I have tried explaining that to my mother, who is from Wigan, and she didn't seem to understand it."
Typical was backup hooker Ken Owens' reaction after England led them 19-0 and won 25-21.
"I am not sure what happened in the first hour. I can't put my finger on it, and it was very uncharacteristic of us," Owens said. "Our defense is our go-to when we are under pressure, and we build our game from that. It is not like us to miss 19 tackles in the first half. We only missed 19 tackles in the whole World Cup. We had an off day."
The rallying cry is to restore some pride, which they should accomplish even without skipper Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones, who were too injured. Flanker Dan Lydiate has the captaincy, and Rhys Webb, Europe's best scrumhalf before the World Cup until he damaged a foot ligament, makes his first test start since September.
Italy is also grateful for the quick chance to rebound from its own low. As Ireland was whipping Italy 58-15 last weekend, too many heads dropped too quickly for coach Jacques Brunel's liking, and he's demanded a morale-boosting response for his last game in charge.
"We need and want to respond," manager Luigi Troiani says. "We're confident we can finish the championship by giving a positive impression."
Italy was guaranteed to finish last; can it avoid its first whitewash since 2009?
It will try without injured center Michele Campagnaro, who was tied for the most line breaks in the competition with Wales winger George North, on seven.
Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Hallam Amos, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate (captain), Luke Charteris, Bradley Davies, Samson Lee, Scott Baldwin, Rob Evans. Reserves: Ken Owens, Gethin Jenkins, Tomas Francis or Aaron Jarvis, Jake Ball, Ross Moriarty, Gareth Davies, Rhys Priestland, Gareth Anscombe.
Italy: David Odiete, Leonardo Sarto, Andrea Pratichetti, Gonzalo Garcia, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Allan, Guglielmo Palazzani; Sergio Parisse (captain), Alessandro Zanni, Francesco Minto, Valerio Bernabo, Quintin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovanni, Davide Giazzon, Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Oliviero Fabiani, Matteo Zanusso, Dario Chistolini, Jacopo Sarto, Abraham Steyn, Alberto Lucchese, Kelly Haimona, Luke McLean.