Leonardo Bonucci has called time on his glittering career, after playing his final game for Fenerbahce.

The decorated defender announced on Saturday that he would retire at the end of the Turkish Super Lig season, which concluded with Ismail Kartal's side inflicting a 6-0 rout on Istanbulspor.

However, it was not quite enough to snatch the title from Galatasaray, who finished three points clear after a 3-1 victory at Konyaspor on the final day.

Bonucci, who signed from Union Berlin in January, was given a wonderful reception as he was presented with a plaque before the game, in which he came on as a 64th-minute substitute.

The 37-year-old enjoyed the most success during his career with Juventus, where he won eight Serie A titles and reached two Champions League finals, while he helped Italy to glory at Euro 2020.

"It was a pleasure for me to be a part of this wonderful family," he said of his time at Fenerbahce on Saturday. "I tried to show my best on and off the field.

A statement on the club website paid tribute to Bonucci, reading: "It was an honour to see a legend like you in a Cubuklu jersey. 

"At this special moment of your career, we would like to thank you on behalf of the entire Fenerbahce family. We wish you successful and healthy days in which you will be a part of football in your future life."

Ciro Immobile, Manuel Locatelli and Marco Verratti are among the big names to miss out on Italy's provisional squad for Euro 2024.

Just 10 players who helped the Azzurri win the delayed Euro 2020 three years ago have been included in Luciano Spalletti's 30-man group, which will be trimmed down to 26 names after friendlies against Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina in early June.

Immobile made Spalletti's first Italy squad last September but has missed out on a trip to Germany after scoring just seven Serie A goals this season.

Verratti joined Immobile in starting Italy's Euro 2020 final victory over England, but he always looked unlikely to be included this year after swapping Paris Saint-Germain for Qatari side Al-Arabi.

Last September, it was reported that Verratti turned down a call-up for Italy's first two Euro 2024 qualifiers under Spalletti to complete his move to Qatar.

Locatelli is also excluded, having seen his international role diminished since the last Euros, but Juventus team-mate Nicolo Fagioli is included after serving a seven-month ban for breaching Italian gambling rules.

Italy begin their Euro 2024 campaign against Albania on June 15, before taking on Spain and Croatia in their remaining Group B fixtures.

They have the chance to replicate La Roja's feat of winning back-to-back editions of the Euros in 2008 and 2012, something no other team has ever accomplished. 

Full 30-man squad: Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris Saint-Germain), Alex Meret (Napoli), Ivan Provedel (Lazio), Guglielmo Vicario (Tottenham), Francesco Acerbi (Inter), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Raoul Bellanova (Torino), Alessandro Buongiorno (Torino), Riccardo Calafiori (Bologna), Andrea Cambiaso (Juventus), Matteo Darmian (Inter), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Federico Dimarco (Inter), Gianluca Mancini (Roma), Giorgio Scalvini (Atalanta), Nicolo Barella (Inter), Bryan Cristante (Roma), Nicolo Fagioli (Juventus), Michael Folorunsho (Verona), Davide Frattesi (Inter), Jorginho (Arsenal), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma), Samuele Ricci (Torino), Federico Chiesa (Juventus), Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma), Riccardo Orsolini (Bologna), Giacomo Raspadori (Napoli), Mateo Retegui (Genoa), Gianluca Scamacca (Atalanta), Mattia Zaccagni (Lazio).

Italy forward Nicolo Zaniolo will miss Euro 2024 after suffering a foot injury during Aston Villa's Premier League draw with Liverpool on Monday.

Zaniolo – who joined Unai Emery's side on a season-long loan from Galatasaray last August – came on as a second-half substitute as they fought back from 3-1 down to clinch a 3-3 draw at Villa Park.

That result moved Villa closer to securing Champions League qualification, which was confirmed when Tottenham lost 2-0 at home to Manchester City on Tuesday.

Zaniolo only lasted 14 minutes following his 65th-minute introduction before being withdrawn himself, though, and scans have shown he sustained a microfracture to his foot.

The 24-year-old has now confirmed he will be unable to feature in Italy's title defence at the Euros, with their Group B campaign set to begin against Albania on June 15.  

In a post to his Instagram account, Zaniolo wrote: "Thank you for your support in these hours, to you Villans and to the many Italian and Turkish fans. I can't wait to get back on the field stronger than before!

"Unfortunately, I will have to give up my dream of representing my country in a major competition. But that day will come, I'm sure, and it will be beautiful! Come on Azzurri!"

Zaniolo also missed Italy's triumphant run at the delayed Euro 2020 three years ago as he was recovering from a ruptured cruciate ligament.

Sandro Tonali has been given a suspended two-month ban by the Football Association (FA) after admitting to breaching gambling rules.

The sanction means the Newcastle United midfielder will be eligible to return to action on August 27, 2024, when his 10-month suspension issued by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) expires.

FIFA ratified that ban, causing it to become applicable worldwide, after Tonali admitted to placing bets on matches as part of an investigation into unregulated betting platforms in Italy.

In March, the FA charged Tonali with breaching English football's gambling rules 50 times between August and October last year, leading to fears his spell out of the game could be extended. 

However, on Thursday it was confirmed that the FA had suspended Tonali's punishment for the duration of the 2024-25 season, meaning he can return in August if he does not reoffend.

In a statement, Newcastle said: "Sandro Tonali has been given a suspended two-month ban from competitive football by an independent regulatory commission after self-declaring breaches of FA betting rules.

"He has also been fined £20,000 and warned by the FA as to his future conduct.

"Provided that he does not commit any further breach of the FA betting rules during the suspension period, Sandro will not serve any part of the two-month sanction.

"As acknowledged by the FA in the independent regulatory commission's written reasons, the level of assistance Sandro has provided by self-referring and fully cooperating with a subsequent investigation is extraordinary and unprecedented. 

"Sandro is continuing to follow a therapeutic plan and educational programme with the club's full support and will continue to train with his team-mates."

Tonali's initial ban has limited him to just eight Premier League appearances since he joined Newcastle from Milan in a £55million deal, while he will also miss Italy's Euro 2024 campaign.

Joy Neville believes it is “inevitable” that the historic feat of a woman refereeing men’s Six Nations and World Cup Test matches will be accomplished.

Neville, a trailblazer for aspiring female officials during her ground-breaking career as a referee, will exit the international stage after taking charge of Sunday’s Women’s Six Nations game between France and Italy in Paris, when the crowd will include her wife Simona and young son Alfie.

But while refereeing retirement beckons for the 40-year-old, she will continue to play a key role as World Rugby’s head coach for elite women officials in the 15s game.

Scotland’s Hollie Davidson this season became the first female assistant referee in a men’s Six Nations Test, while England’s Sara Cox has refereed in the Gallagher Premiership and South African Aimee Barrett-Theron is a regular on the United Rugby Championship circuit.

“It is going to happen and it will be a completely-deserved appointment,” Neville told the PA news agency.

“It is inevitable. The calibre of female referees that we have in place now is significant.

“I know a lot of the girls so well, how they work and I am just excited about supporting them further in ensuring they have the support to progress and help them achieve whatever goals they have in mind.”

Neville’s 11-year refereeing career began in a Limerick schools match at under-15 level and she can end it by looking back on numerous achievements.

She controlled the 2017 women’s World Cup final between England and New Zealand and was the first woman to referee men’s matches in European and URC competitions.

Neville also took charge of a men’s Rugby Europe Conference match between Norway an Denmark, while in 2017 she was named World Rugby referee of the year and last autumn became the first female to be part of a men’s World Cup officiating panel, working as a television match official.

And all that after an outstanding playing career that saw her win 70 Ireland caps, captain her country, play in two World Cups and win a Six Nations Grand Slam.

“I felt it was time to take a step away for family reasons,” Neville added. “Refereeing demands an awful lot of commitment and time away from home.

“And while I have enjoyed every single experience and I have learnt so much from the difficult moments and enjoyed the great moments, there comes a point that you realise it is time to enjoy a more normal lifestyle!”

Recalling how she became involved in refereeing, Neville said: “It was one or two days after I announced my retirement as a player.

“David McHugh (former international referee who worked for the Irish Rugby Football Union) called me and was coming to me with something that would demand even more time away and commitment.

“I had never for one second contemplated becoming a referee. When people retire from the game, they automatically think about giving back by volunteering, coaching and so on, but no one really properly considers refereeing.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t find it difficult at the start, going into a new environment, learning a new skill, learning from my mistakes, understanding different people-management. To be honest, refereeing can teach you so much.

“Yes, I have had difficult moments, but I have learnt from them and learnt how to cope and deal with those situations.

“I remember I refereed my first professional game – Southern Kings versus Ulster in Belfast – and all the media attention was about the first female to referee a professional game and all I have ever tried to achieve was drop ‘the first female’. It is just a referee.

“Just make it the norm and thankfully I think we have broken down that door.”

World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont paid tribute to Neville ahead of her final game.

He told the World Rugby website: “As someone who continues to blaze a trail for aspiring female and male referees, we are delighted that Joy will be continuing to channel her experience, passion and expertise into helping our international match officials be the best they can be as World Rugby’s elite women’s 15s match officials head coach.”

England kicked off their Women’s Six Nations title defence with an eight-try 48-0 trouncing of Italy in Parma despite having Sarah Beckett sent off after just 11 minutes.

The hosts, who have finished fifth the last two years, were no match for the 2023 Grand Slam winners who picked up a bonus point as they began their quest for a sixth successive championship in style.

Beckett was dismissed early on for a dangerous ruck clear-out but only after becoming the first woman to have her yellow card upgraded to a red by the TMO ‘bunker’ system.

But it did little to harm England’s chances as they eased into a 10-point lead at half-time courtesy of tries from Hannah Botterman and Abbie Ward.

England, for whom captain Marlie Packer won her 100th cap, picked up their performance after the break and added a further six tries to seal a comprehensive win.

Ellie Kildunne (two), Lark Atkin-Davies, Helena Rowland, Mackenzie Carson and Connie Powell all touched down despite the visitors being reduced to 13 players in the 69th minute when Rowland was yellow-carded for head contact at a ruck.

England scrum-half Natasha Hunt believes this season’s Guinness Women’s Six Nations could be the most competitive in its 22-year history.

The tournament kicks off on Saturday when France host Ireland in Le Mans and Wales tackle Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park.

England, winners of 14 Six Nations titles and 12 Grand Slams since the tournament began in 2002, launch their campaign against Italy in Parma on Sunday.

The Red Roses’ two home fixtures against Wales and Ireland will be played at Ashton Gate and Twickenham respectively.

Wales’ appointment with Italy on April 27, meanwhile, is their first stand-alone women’s Test at the Principality Stadium, with a possible title decider taking place later that day between France and England in Bordeaux.

England are bidding for a sixth successive Six Nations crown, and the world’s number one-ranked team look like being tough to stop.

Former New Zealand men’s head coach and England assistant John Mitchell is now at the helm, while his support staff includes World Cup winner and 141 times-capped former Red Roses number eight Sarah Hunter.

“I think it could be the most competitive ever,” Hunt, 35, told the PA news agency.

“It took us (England) two or three years to reap the benefits of having our professional contracts, and Scotland and Wales are now in that boat.

“Everyone wants to watch games that go down to the wire so the more competitive the games are, the better it is for the viewer.

“We have got a whole new game-plan, a whole new system that we are trying to implement, and we want to get that right and do what we can to put our best foot forward.”

Mitchell has made several changes from the team that beat New Zealand in the WXV1 final in November, with Emily Scarratt, Abbie Ward and Zoe Harrison among those returning.

Skipper Marlie Packer, meanwhile, becomes the seventh England women’s player to clock up a century of caps.

Hunt, Mitchell’s scrum-half bench option this weekend, was a surprise exclusion from England’s 2022 World Cup squad and the Six Nations presents another opportunity to show her quality after a successful WXV tournament.

“It was quite a shock,” she added, reflecting on her World Cup omission.

“I was at a bit of a crossroads in my career, I guess. At my age, it would have been quite easy to have thought ‘this is it’.

“But I just felt that I had so much more to give. I absolutely love playing for my country, and rugby is the best game ever.

“It did take me a while to consider whether I wanted to put myself back into that environment or not, but when I made that decision that it was something I wanted to go after, I have thrown everything at it.”

Wales full-back Jenny Hesketh will make her Test bow against Scotland, with Rachel Malcolm leading a Scotland team that includes debutant Alex Stewart among her back-row colleagues, while 18-year-old Leinster wing Katie Corrigan wins a first Ireland cap against France.

For the first time in a women’s rugby competition, the bunker system will operate, allowing referees an option to refer incidents of foul play for review when a potential red card is not clear and obvious.

And instrumented mouthguards, which were a feature of the men’s Six Nations this season and are designed to help with identifying a need for head injury assessments and provide in-game alerts to medical teams, will be worn by players throughout the tournament.

Mateo Retegui scored a brace as Italy left it late to beat Venezuela 2-1 at Chase Stadium.

The Genoa forward’s double separated the teams, after Darwin Machis equalised for the South Americans on the night in Fort Lauderdale.

The Euro 2020 champions relied on Paris St Germain goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma once again and his penalty saving heroics were on full display.

The penalty came early. Italy’s blushes were saved through Donnarumma who got down smartly to deny Salomon Rondon’s spot-kick in the opening minutes.

Italy enjoyed long spells of possession and Federico Chiesa went close to opening the scoring.

The Juventus winger cut inside on the left, opting for the far post but his whipped effort missed the target.

Machis was Venezuela’s brightest player up to this point. He delivered an inch-perfect ball to the head of Rondon but the former West Brom and Everton player’s header failed to trouble Donnarumma.

Italy broke the deadlock in the 40th minute. Goalkeeper Rafael Romo’s poor clearance was picked out by Andrea Cambiaso who laid the ball off to Retegui and the forward smashed the ball in from close range.

Italy’s lead only lasted a few minutes as the potent Machis levelled proceedings.

Donnarumma’s poor pass put Giacomo Bonaventura under pressure and Machis’ pressing forced the mistake out of the midfielder before he provided a composed finish.

The Azzurri were left frustrated and they missed an opportunity to go ahead on the hour when Alessandro Buongiorno should have done better with a header which sailed over the crossbar from a free-kick.

Retegui then capped an impressive night with the winning goal 10 minutes from time.

Jorginho used good footwork to beat a defender after a poor clearance and the Arsenal midfielder laid the ball off to the clinical Retegui, who completed his brace with a powerful finish.

Wales suffered the ignominy of a first Six Nations wooden spoon since 2003 after Italy posted a 24-21 victory over them in Cardiff.

Not even George North’s farewell appearance before international retirement – he suffered an injury late in the game and was helped off – could lift a dismal Wales effort in suffering a fifth successive Six Nations defeat this season and finishing bottom of the table.

It was a thoroughly deserved Italian win and came via tries from wing Monty Ioane and full-back Lorenzo Pani, with fly-half Paolo Garbisi kicking three penalties and a conversion and Martin Page-Relo landing a late penalty.

While Wales boss Warren Gatland has pleaded for patience as he embarks on an extensive post-World Cup rebuilding job, stark statistics cannot be avoided as late tries from Elliot Dee, Will Rowlands and Mason Grady, with Ioan Lloyd kicking two conversions and Sam Costelow one, provided scant consolation.

Wales have now suffered seven successive Six Nations home reversals, two on the bounce to Italy and won just one game from 10 starts in the tournament since Gatland returned for a second stint as head coach.

Italy had propped up the table for eight campaigns in a row, but they avoided that fate this time around, and the Cardiff mood was in stark contrast to five years ago when Wales stormed to the Six Nations title and a Grand Slam by crushing Ireland.

The Azzurri, though, could reflect on a memorable campaign that also saw them defeat Scotland and draw with France in Lille.

And life is not about to get any easier for Gatland or his players. Their next game is against world champions South Africa in June, followed by a two-Test tour of Australia.

Wales monopolised early possession without making any real attacking headway, and Italy went ahead when Garbisi booted a sixth-minute penalty.

Italy comfortably absorbed continued pressure from Wales, before Garbisi doubled their lead through a second penalty after North infringed by not releasing the ball on the floor.

And Wales’ promising start soon unravelled, with North’s midfield partner Nick Tompkins dropping a pass and Italy storming upfield to post an outstanding try.

Garbisi, centre Tommaso Menoncello and lock Federico Ruzza combined superbly, setting up a strong attacking platform before Wales were unlocked defensively when Ioane sprinted through a gap and touched down.

Garbisi missed the conversion, but Italy had an 11-point advantage after 20 minutes, leaving the wooden spoon hovering closer into view for Wales.

The home side were at sixes and sevens, a situation underlined when a defensive mix-up between Sam Costelow and Cameron Winnett saw the ball knocked-on to gift Italy an attacking scrum 20 metres out.

Although the Azzurri could not capitalise, there was continued uncertainty and hesitancy from Wales, and even when they established a threatening position inside Italy’s 22, Tompkins knocked on again.

Wales looked completely fazed by the occasion, in contrast to Italy’s largely calm and assured presence, and an 11-0 interval lead confirmed a sense of control for the visitors.

It had been an opening 40 minutes for Wales as poor as the first half against Scotland in their Six Nations opener, when the Scots built up a 20-point advantage.

Italy struck again just six minutes after the restart, with Ioane heavily involved and Pani producing a blistering finish as he cut back inside Wales wing Rio Dyer. Garbisi’s conversion put them 18 points ahead, with seemingly no way back for Wales.

Gatland began ringing the changes, and a glimmer of hope was provided when Dee crashed over for a try 16 minutes from time that Costelow converted.

But Garbisi snuffed that out when he kicked a 45-metre penalty, and Page-Relo then found the target from even longer range as Wales’ abject Six Nations season reached its sorry conclusion despite late tries from Rowlands and Grady.

Josh Adams says that Wales must not “shy away” from what awaits them in the pressure-filled cauldron of a wooden spoon decider against Italy.

Cardiff’s Principality Stadium has played host to Six Nations title successes and witnessed Grand Slam glory, but the contrast this weekend could hardly be greater.

There is no silverware at stake, just the Guinness Six Nations’ mythical “prize” for finishing bottom of the table. And this season it is a straight shoot-out between Wales and Italy.

Wales, currently four points adrift of their fifth-placed opponents, must win to have any chance of avoiding a first wooden spoon since 2003.

Even victory might not be enough if bonus points come into play, and Wales wing Adams accepts that the heat is on.

“It is a bit of a different pressure,” he said.

“Pressure when you are in a game to win something, it feels a little bit different. There is something at the end of it, whereas this is a situation where we can’t afford to lose.

“We have to have the mindset that international rugby is all about winning, and we haven’t been able to do that yet. We are desperate to win.

“I have been in a relegation battle in the Premiership with Worcester. We lost our first seven games of the season and we were miles adrift at the bottom.

“It came down to a game against London Irish, where it was pretty much whoever won would stay up. This is similar in a way.

“You have to embrace it and not shy away from it. We can’t go in our shells and cover up.

“We have had the mentality of ‘let’s take this head-on, let’s be at our best this weekend and let’s finish with what we feel we deserve, which is a good victory’.

“Sometimes you learn best from your losses, but there are only learnings if you show improvements the following week, otherwise there is no point.

“I won my first Test at home against Scotland, then lost away against England and I didn’t lose for nine Tests after that. I was in a team that didn’t know how to lose.

“That is the sort of journey we are going to have to get to where it becomes second-nature where we understand how to close games out, how to squeeze opposition better and see tough Test matches out.

“International rugby is a cut-throat business, and you need to perform at your best every week if you want to win.”

Wales’ last Six Nations victory was against Italy in Rome 12 months ago, while the Azzuri triumphed 22-21 on their most recent Cardiff visit in 2022 when try-scorer Adams was named player of the match and promptly gave his medal to visiting full-back Ange Capuozzo.

That match was Alun Wyn Jones 150th Wales cap and Dan Biggar’s 100th, while this time around the game is George North’s farewell appearance before retiring from Test rugby.

“I would like to think we can send off George with a win and not have a repeat of the result when Dan and Al reached their incredible milestones,” Adams added.

“It is important we do something for George. He has had so many memorable moments for Wales, and his contribution to Welsh rugby has been incredible.

“There are no real words to sum him up. I would just like to say ‘thank you’ for the way he has helped me.”

Aaron Wainwright insists nothing but victory will be acceptable for Wales in Saturday’s wooden spoon decider against Italy.

Wales must win in Cardiff to have any chance of not finishing bottom of the Guinness Six Nations table for a first time since 2003.

Narrow defeats against Scotland and England this season were followed by heavier losses at the hands of Ireland and France, leaving Wales four points adrift in sixth place.

Even if they topple Italy, Wales could still remain rooted to the basement should losing bonus points come into play.

Asked how desperate he would be to avoid having a wooden spoon on his resume, Wales number eight Wainwright said: “It would be embarrassing.

“We can’t afford to go out tomorrow and lose. We need to win. I don’t think anything else is acceptable.

“Massive respect to the Italians for what they’ve done so far in the tournament, but we are definitely going out there and getting a win to end the campaign on a high.

“We were accurate and played well in the first 20 minutes (against France), and it is about doing that against Italy and sustaining it for the rest of the game.

“We won in Rome last year, and we will be looking to do the same this time to finish on a positive note and take something away from this campaign.”

Italy beat Wales at the Principality Stadium two years ago, and they now return to tackle a team that have lost their last six home games in the Six Nations.

Warren Gatland had a Six Nations win ratio of around 70 per cent during his first stint in the job from 2008 to 2019. Since he returned for last year’s tournament, it stands at barely 10 per cent.

There are mitigating factors, including post-World Cup retirements of Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny – George North will follow after Saturday’s game – Louis Rees-Zammit quitting rugby for a possible NFL career, Liam Williams moving to Japan and the likes of Jac Morgan, Taulupe Faletau and Dewi Lake all being sidelined by long-term injuries.

Five players have made Test debuts during an extensive Six Nations rebuild, but Wales’ lack of depth is highlighted by their front-row replacements on Saturday – Evan Lloyd, Kemsley Mathias and Harri O’Connor – having just 41 minutes of international experience between them.

Gatland has never lost to Italy as Wales boss, and he said: “We are all aware it is an important game for us. We are at home.

“We have felt like we’ve been in all the games for long periods and put ourselves in positions.

“We could have won a couple more games than we have at the moment, and that is frustrating for us. But I talk to the players continuously about game-management scenarios and looking to improve.

“They (Italy) look probably in better shape physically than they have ever been in the past. They have got some depth across the whole of the squad.”

Wales captain Dafydd Jenkins said: “In these sorts of games you can tell who is meant for the Test arena and who really wants it.

“There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel; 2003 probably wasn’t the best season (for Wales), but then you go to 2005 and they are winning Grand Slams.

“That is our aim and where we want to be.”

Wales and Italy will contest the Guinness Six Nations’ least-wanted “prize” in Cardiff on Saturday.

Avoiding the mythical wooden spoon for finishing bottom of the table is front and centre for both countries, with Wales four points adrift of their fifth-placed opponents.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points heading into the game.

Wooden spoon stirs the pot

Wales have not finished last on the Six Nations log since 2003, when a 33-5 defeat against France in Paris meant they lost all five games under head coach Steve Hansen. The Wales team that day included players like Iestyn Harris, Gareth Thomas, Dwayne Peel, Gethin Jenkins and Martyn Williams as they suffered a heaviest reversal of the tournament. Wales have won the Six Nations title on six occasions since then, including four Grand Slams, which highlights this season’s demise, while Italy are striving to avoid a ninth successive wooden spoon after Scotland had that dubious distinction in 2015.

Farewell to George North

From the moment he arrived on the Test match stage as an 18-year-old against South Africa in 2010, North has proved an inspired presence for Wales and the British and Irish Lions. He will retire from international rugby after Saturday’s game, having helped Wales win four Six Nations titles – including two Grand Slams – and played in four World Cups. His Wales try-count stands at 47 in 120 games, and he has averaged almost one touchdown per game against Italy, with his sizeable haul including a hat-trick in 2015. North deserves every accolade he will receive as a modern-day Wales great whose pace, power and try-scoring prowess made him box-office entertainment.

Wales’ rebuild will continue

Whatever happens against Italy, short-term pain must be eclipsed by potential long-term gain as Wales head coach Warren Gatland continues moulding a new-look squad. Since the World Cup, Gatland has seen Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar retire from Test rugby, with North to follow, Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe head to club rugby in Japan, while Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake and Taulupe Faletau were among Six Nations injury absentees. Gatland has paraded five new caps during the tournament – including the exciting Cardiff trio of Cameron Winnett, Alex Mann and Mackenzie Martin – and he asked Welsh supporters for patience that has so far been reciprocated.

Italy need to do a job

Italy have shown some impressive form in this season’s Six Nations, beating Scotland, drawing with France away from home and going down by just three points to England. The victory over Scotland was their first Six Nations triumph in Rome since 2013, and players like centre pairing Juan Ignacio Brex and Tommaso Menoncello, wing Louis Lynagh and captain Michele Lamaro have excelled. The challenge now is to produce another performance of the type that almost defeated France and then accounted for Scotland. They return to Cardiff two years after claiming a dramatic 22-21 success, and there will be expectation in the Azzurri camp of a repeat performance.

Cardiff no longer a fortress

The Principality Stadium has played host to some memorable Welsh rugby moments, with Six Nations title triumphs and Grand Slam glory topping that list. Recently though, the Cardiff venue has seemingly lost its aura. Wales have suffered six successive Six Nations defeats there, with all five of their championship opponents winning on the road. It is 13 losses and one draw from the last 20 capped internationals at home, with victories only being recorded against Canada, Fiji, Australia, Scotland, Argentina and England (World Cup warm-up match) in full internationals during that time. The atmosphere remains among world rugby’s finest, but opponents are no longer fazed by what awaits them.

Grant Gilchrist has told his Scotland colleagues to embrace the pressure of having to produce a positive response against Ireland on Saturday as they bid to banish “a dark couple of days” following their damaging Guinness Six Nations defeat in Italy last weekend.

The Scots have been heavily criticised after losing 31-29 in Rome and squandering the chance to set up a title shootout with Andy Farrell’s side in Dublin.

Instead Gregor Townsend’s team are now chasing a face-saving result away to “arguably the best team in the world at the minute” in order to avoid potentially finishing as low as fifth in the championship.

“We should feel under pressure,” said veteran second-rower Gilchrist. “Every time you put on the jersey you should feel under pressure, nothing for me changes.

“Through our own play we’ve set the bar a lot higher than any other Scotland team that I’ve ever been part of and that pressure is a privilege.

“It’s a privilege to wear the jersey, it’s a privilege to play in a team that’s good enough to be expecting to get huge results and to win all these big games.

“We’re not going to shy away from pressure. Pressure comes with big games and big moments and that’s why we play the game.

“We know the strength of the opposition, Ireland are arguably the best team in the world at the minute. With their home record, you can’t pick a tougher test but that’s a huge excitement for us.

“We know we’re going to have to be at our very best but that’s what we strive to be anyway. We need to embrace the pressure, embrace the challenge – I don’t think there’s any bigger challenge – and go out and deliver a performance.”

Gilchrist, 33, admitted the defeat in Rome was a tough one to swallow.

“In the immediacy, it was a dark couple of days,” he said. “No one cares more than the guys in that changing room and we’re devastated with how the game went and the opportunity we let slip by.

“It’s not a case of being able to move on too quickly but we had a really good day on Monday going through it and players taking a lot more responsibility.

“It was on us to look at solutions and come up with a plan so that we could put it behind us and it was great to get out on the grass on Tuesday and start putting things in place for what’s going to be… well there’s no bigger challenge.”

Hours after their own defeat, there was further reason for Scottish regret when Ireland’s surprise loss to England effectively meant Townsend’s team had blown a golden chance to go into the last weekend of the championship knowing victory would bring them title glory for the first time in 25 years.

“You couldn’t give me more of a blow than losing a game of rugby for my country that I know we were more than good enough to win, but because of our own doing we allowed ourselves to get into a game where we came out on the wrong side of the result,” said Gilchrist.

“Yes, it was a double blow (with Ireland also losing) but the first blow was enough for me. I couldn’t be more devastated at the fact that we didn’t take care of what we were doing and we knew all that stuff (the result at Twickenham) was out of our control anyway.”

Wales head coach Warren Gatland led tributes to George North after his announcement that he will retire from Test rugby following Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash against Italy.

North has decided to call time on an international career that has yielded 120 caps, 47 tries for Wales, four Six Nations titles, including two Grand Slams, four World Cups and two British and Irish Lions tours, when he played in three Tests.

“George has contributed hugely to Welsh rugby in an incredible career, starting as an 18-year-old,” Gatland said.

“The way that he burst on to the scene. I can remember seeing him play and thinking, ‘We need to cap this kid’.

“He has been incredible as a rugby player, but I think the most important thing is how he has contributed to the squad as a person over the years.

“How positive and encouraging he has been within and around the group, things that people wouldn’t have seen in terms of what he has organised off the field.

“George has been outstanding and a credit to himself. He can definitely hold his head high. He and his family and friends can be very proud of everything he has achieved.

“I look forward to watching George play at the Principality Stadium one final time in a red jersey on Saturday and I hope everyone will join me in celebrating him. Diolch George.”

North’s former Wales and Lions team-mate Jamie Roberts described him on X as a “generational player”, while the Lions said that North had enjoyed “an incredible international career”.

And ex-Wales and Lions number eight Scott Quinnell said on X: “Congratulations on an amazing career. One of the very best. Enjoy every minute of Saturday.”

Ospreys centre North will continue playing rugby next season, having agreed a deal with ambitious French club Provence.

Adam Beard says there can be no “ifs or buts” for Wales when it comes to dealing with the pressure of a Guinness Six Nations wooden-spoon showdown against Italy.

Wales are one defeat away from their worst Six Nations campaign in terms of results since 2003, when they lost all five games.

Narrow reversals against Scotland and England were followed by more comprehensive setbacks at the hands of Ireland and France, leaving Wales four points adrift at the basement.

And they will face an Italy team next Saturday buoyed by a stirring victory over Scotland, which underlined impressive strides being made under new head coach Gonzalo Quesada.

Beard was part of Six Nations title-winning teams in 2019 – when Wales also secured a Grand Slam – and 2021, but he now finds himself trying to help his country stave off receiving the tournament’s most unwanted tag.

“We’ve got to deal with it, there are no ifs or buts now,” said Beard.

“We have got to deal with it, and we’ve got to deal with it pretty quickly. Hopefully, when it comes to it, we will be right on point and we will deal with that pressure well and get the win.

“It’s huge. There is nothing we can do but win that game, otherwise you know what is going to happen.

“It is a must-win game, so we are going to be hungry and willing to go to the well for 80 minutes.”

Italy’s win against Scotland was their first Six Nations success on home soil for 11 years, while they head to Cardiff having triumphed there two years ago thanks to Edoardo Padovani’s try that Paolo Garbisi converted with the game’s final kick.

Away from the Test arena, further improvement has been underlined by leading Italian team Benetton’s bid to reach the United Rugby Championship title-play-offs, having lost only three league games this season.

And Beard added: “It was an unbelievable win for them (against Scotland), and they are probably going to be on a massive high coming to the Principality Stadium.

“Over the last (number of) years I have played against them, it has been a tough Test match every single time.

“Their game-management, how structured they are – it is not a loose game from them any more – and they have got exciting players.

“They have got a very good team on paper and they are putting in some good performances, and we have got to be on point to get the win.

“Hopefully, everyone who is watching Welsh rugby can see that (while) we haven’t got a win yet, there are lots of positives that have come out of these games and we are not far off being an unbelievable side.

“We like to pride ourselves on being a tough team to beat. We want to get those results and we want them now.

“We are not happy with just being a young side getting good exposure, we do want to get those wins now. International rugby is about winning, so it would be nice to put in an 80-minute performance next Saturday.

“Look, we can’t put too much pressure on ourselves because sometimes that goes the other way then, and it might spiral backwards.

“If we get our stuff right and put in that 80-minute performance, I have no doubt this squad will get the win.”

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