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Elfyn Evans raises the stakes in Monte Carlo

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ELFYN EVANS’ bid to add further success to his history-making win on last year’s Dayinsure Wales Rally GB blasts off with next week’s Rallye Monte-Carlo (25-28 January).

As tradition dictates, the FIA World Rally Championship commences with the notoriously challenging Alpine classic – a wintry event that always throws up an ultra-testing cocktail of ice, snow and slush making the already demanding mountain roads among the trickiest on the 13-round WRC calendar, which reaches Wales in early October.

Evans has contested Rallye Monte-Carlo four times previously and has never finished outside the top eight. His best result to date is sixth place on his debut in 2014 and again last year.

“It’s never an easy event,” admits the 29-year-old from Dolgellau. “There are so many factors that come into play that you don’t generally get on a more normal round of the championship but it’s an iconic way to start the year. The stages themselves – if you take away all the snow and ice – are absolutely fantastic.”

Since taking his maiden WRC win in Wales – the first for a Welsh driver, and the first for a British driver on home soil since the late Richard Burns in 2000 – Evans has been promoted by his title-winning M-Sport team. For 2018, he and co-driver Daniel Barritt line up alongside five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier in one of the Cumbrian outfit’s pair of front-line Red Bull-liveried Ford Fiesta WRCs.

“It’s a good place to be alongside Seb again this year,” he enthused. “We worked together well last year – albeit on different tyres – so to continue that on now with identical equipment is a fantastic opportunity.”

While clearly keen to make the most of his coveted seat alongside the French maestro, Evans is by no means overawed by his illustrious team-team. “He’s a fantastic benchmark to have in the team, has a lot of experience and is the best in the world at the moment, so you’d be a fool not to capitalise on that and learn from him. My aim, though, is always to try to beat him if we can.”

And the Welshman is certainly brimming with confidence after his break-through season in 2017 when he not only posted his first WRC victory but also two impressive second place finishes en route to fifth place in the final WRC championship standings.

“We made some good steps forward and found a happy place with the car – hopefully we can continue improving from there,” he disclosed.

Evans, though, will need to be at his brilliant best not just to beat Ogier but also to fend off some world class opposition in what promises to be another thrilling world championship series. Last year’s introduction of new technical rules not only introduced faster, more exciting cars but also created renewed rivalry between the top teams.

M-Sport might have won both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ crowns in 2017 but the opposition from Citroën, Hyundai and Toyota will be even stronger in 2018. Evans, however, believes the M-Sport technicians – now benefiting from increased support from Ford – will keep the Fiesta in front.

“There are small improvements but ultimately, with the regulations as they are, it doesn’t give anyone the scope to make massive changes. More a case of tweaking here and there,” he explained.

“We already had a strong platform, we just need to keep nibbling away to find gains in performance. Hopefully, the guys have been doing that over the winter and we all will continue pushing hard with the support of Ford this year. There’s always been a Ford connection with some engineering support but that’s now stepped up a level – that should help us to improve and stay at the top.”

While next week’s famous Rallye Monte-Carlo will provide a stern opening test, the WRC calendar throws up numerous challenges before the intrepid teams encounter the legendary Welsh forests in early October. As ever, the calendar is an epic adventure ranging from the snow packed tracks of Sweden to the rock-strewn mountain passes of Mexico and Argentina.

“To be honest, there are no rounds that I’m not looking forward to,” continued Evans. “I now have fond memories of just about all of the events. My focus this year will be to enjoy them all and to get the most out of each one, rather just targeting a handful.

“It will, of course, be special to be back in Wales,” he grinned. “The DMACK tyres obviously helped to put us in good position last year, now we’re equal Michelins to everyone else. Let’s wait and see. It’s a few months away but, obviously, we will be looking for another great result.”

In the meantime, all those wanting to follow Evans’ fortunes on television are spoilt for choice with both live and highlights coverage of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship on Channel 5, BT Sport, S4C and Red Bull TV.

Tickets for the 2018 Dayinsure Wales Rally GB (4-7 October) will go on sale when the competitive route is revealed in April.

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A 48-7 victory over Italy leaves Wales a win from the Grand Slam

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IT was always going to be a tough game for the Italian side, but now it is official, Wales are one win away from the Grand Slam!

Wales scored seven tries through Josh Adams, Taulupe Faletau, Ken Owens (2), George North, Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit as they secured a comfortable Six Nations win in Rome.

The unbeaten tournament leaders reeled off a third successive bonus-point victory to increase pressure on their rivals for silverware. Italy meanwhile are staring down the barrel at another Wooden Spoon – they haven’t won a Six Nations match since 2015.https://www.youtube.com/embed/QI4FARxZcKk?feature=oembed

STILL A BIT OF WORK TO DO

The Welsh captain, Alun Wyn Jones, who is just one win away from winning his fourth Six Nations Grand Slam told S4C: “We were pretty clinical, particularly in the first half.

“We’re a tad frustrated with the second half but it’s a case of job done and plenty to work on.

“The excitement I feel every time I pull on this red jersey is insurmountable, so I’m looking forward to getting back to it on Monday and preparing for next weekend.”

Jones added: “It’s job done, but there’s still a bit to work on.”

Another heavy defeat will again raise the inevitable questions about Italy’s position in the Six Nations and whether there should be relegation.

The facts speak for themselves.

Today marked a 31st successive defeat for the Azzurri in the competition, with their last victory coming against Scotland in 2015.

Italy have not managed a home Six Nations win for eight years, with 20 successive losses.

Italy have conceded 187 points and 26 tries in four games this year.

Line-ups
Italy: Trulla, Bellini, Brex, Canna, Ioane, Garbisi, Varney; Fischetti, Bigi (capt), Zilocchi, Cannone, Sisi, Negri, Meyer, Lamaro.

Replacements: Fabiani for Ioane (7-18), Lovotti for Fischetti (65) Riccioni for Zilocchi (33), Lazzaroni for Cannone (52), Mbanda for Meyer (26-36), Violi for Varney (63), Mori for Garbisi (54) Padovani for Trulla (44).

Wales: L Williams; Rees-Zammit, North, J Davies, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; W Jones, Owens, Tomas Francis, Hill, AW Jones (capt), Navidi, Tipuric, Faletau.

Replacements: Dee for Owens (54), Carre for W Jones (57), Brown for Francis (45), Ball for AW Jones (54), Wainwright for Faletau (51), L Williams for G Davies (52), Sheedy for Biggar (52), Halaholo for North (46)

Match officials
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

Touch judges: Pascal Gauzere (France) & Christophe Ridley (England)

TMO: Tom Foley (England)https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1370764974163947527&lang=en-gb&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.herald.wales%2Fsport%2Fa-48-7-victory-over-italy-leaves-wales-a-win-from-the-grand-slam%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=e1ffbdb%3A1614796141937&width=500px

MATCH ANALYSIS

Surely it was discipline that was the main problem for Italy.

Mistakes and an incredible ability to give away stupid penalties, as a series of needless errors allowed the visitors to build an insurmountable lead early on.

It all started with Paolo Garbisi sending the ball dead from the kick-off before Luca Bigi infringed at the breakdown. The captain then cynically stopped a Gareth Davies quick tap and was duly yellow carded. Against 14 men, Wales built up an advantage they would not relinquish as the visitors won the game before it had really started. It was not a good example from the skipper and is symptomatic of where the Italians are currently at.

Arguably since before the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour, the back has struggled for form, leading many to question whether that was it for the Welsh centurion. Although he is only 28, it must be remembered that North has been around at the top level for a long time and there is only so much the body can take in modern day rugby. However, the move into the midfield seems to have given him a new lease of life.

To the surprise of many, Callum Sheedy did not start against Italy after his superb performance versus England. Instead, it was the much criticised Dan Biggar who continued at fly-half and produced a significantly improved display before giving way to the Bristol playmaker in the second period. Sheedy was also excellent when he came on and it leaves Wayne Pivac with a decision to make going forward. No doubt, Biggar will start next week against France – albeit the head coach is not afraid of making a big call – but the 25-year-old is certainly not far off the first XV.

Much has been said and written about the Azzurri’s continued presence in the Six Nations and based on the evidence in this fixture, they really shouldn’t be playing in a competition of this stature. Franco Smith’s charges were never at the races with Wales racing into a 22-0 lead midway through the half without really breaking a sweat. Italy hardly threatened on attack – especially during the first half – and it looked like it was a case of men against boys for large periods of this Test. The result means they have now lost 31 matches on the trot, which is the longest losing streak in the history of the Championship, and they last tasted victory in a Round Three clash against Scotland in 2015. The time is now ripe for tournament organisers to reconsider their participation.

Although Italy were never in this encounter, Wales deserve plenty of credit as they impressed for the entire game and made full use of the opportunities which were presented to them.

Pivac will be delighted with the clinical fashion with which his players went about their business and they had their bonus point in the bag by the half-hour mark after Josh Adams, Taulupe Faletau and Ken Owens (2) crossed for tries. Despite leading 27-0 at the interval, Wales did not take their foot of the pedal with North also crossing the whitewash soon after the restart and although Monty Ioane scored a try for the hosts, that was a mere blip as Wales continued to dominate and sealed their win with five-pointers from Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit.

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Six Nations: North set for 100th cap against England

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GEORGE North is set to become the youngest player in the world to reach the 100-cap milestone for his country on Saturday, February 27, when Wales take on England at Principality Stadium (KO 16.45 BBC & S4C).

North, 28, made his international bow in November 2010 and has amassed 42 tries in his 99 appearances.

North will line-up in the centre alongside Jonathan Davies on Saturday, outside of half-back pairing of Kieran Hardy and Dan Biggar. Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams comprise the back-three.

Wales name an unchanged front-five with Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Tomas Francis packing down in the front-row and Adam Beard partnering captain Alun Wyn Jones in the second-row.

Josh Navidi returns to the side to line-up alongside Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

“We’ve had a great two weeks leading into this game and we are looking forward to Saturday,” said Wales head coach Wayne Pivac.

“We continue to build and we know there is plenty left in us in terms of improvements from the opening two rounds. We are 2/2 but we want to continue to improve performance wise.

“Saturday is a great milestone for George, it is a huge achievement at his age and we are looking forward to seeing him in action.”

Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones and Leon Brown provide the front-row cover for Wales with Cory Hill and James Botham completing the forward contingent. Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy and Uilisi Halaholo provide the back-line cover.

WALES TEAM TO PLAY ENGLAND (SATURDAY FEBRUARY 24, KO 16.45)

1. Wyn Jones (32 Caps)

2. Ken Owens (79 Caps)

3. Tomas Francis (54 Caps)

4. Adam Beard (23 Caps)

5. Alun Wyn Jones (CAPT) (145 Caps)

6. Josh Navidi (25 Caps)

7. Justin Tipuric (82 Caps)

8. Taulupe Faletau (83 Caps)

9. Kieran Hardy (3 Caps)

10. Dan Biggar (89 Caps)

11. Josh Adams (29 Caps)

12. Jonathan Davies (85 Caps)

13. George North (99 Caps)

14. Louis Rees-Zammit (6 Caps)

15. Liam Williams (68 Caps)

Replacements:

16. Elliot Dee (34 Caps)

17. Rhodri Jones (19 Caps)

18. Leon Brown (14 Caps)

19. Cory Hill (29 Caps)

20. James Botham (4 Caps)

21. Gareth Davies (59 Caps)

22. Callum Sheedy (6 Caps)

23. Uilisi Halaholo (1 Cap)

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Wales looking for third win in a row against England

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WALES have won their first two games in the Six Nations Championship and on Saturday, February 27, they put that record on the line against great rivals England.

Having already beaten Ireland and Scotland, the Triple Crown will be on the line for Wales, a feat they last achieved in 2019 when they won the Grand Slam.

That will be incentive enough for Wayne Pivac’s men but to do it against England will make it that little bit sweeter.

With France’s game against Scotland on Sunday in doubt, it will also give the home side a great chance to extend their lead at the top of the table.

Wales do not have any fresh injury concerns going into the England game and it will likely provide a selection headache for Pivac.

George North could be set to make his 100th appearance for Wales if he plays against England, and is currently second in the list of all-time try scorers for his home country.

England lost their opening game of the tournament against Scotland but got back to winning ways with a resounding 41-18 win over Italy.

The 2020 Six Nations and Autumn Cup Champions will be eager to rediscover their winning form which brought them that success but they will not find it easy against Wales.

What happened the last time England visited the Principality Stadium?
Wales last welcomed England to the Principality on February 23, 2019, and it was a game which saw Wales earn a 21-13 victory.

Cory Hill and Josh Adams scored Wales’ tries in that match while Dan Biggar and Gareth Anscombe added the rest of the points from the boot.

Tom Curry scored England’s only try in that match while Farrell had a 100% success rate with his kicks.

What happened when the sides met in 2020?

It was an absolute classic last year with England triumphing by 33 points to 30 at Twickenham.

Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi got the tries for England on that day while Owen Farrell had again had a 100% record with the boot.

Justin Tipuric bagged two tries for Wales while Dan Biggar scored their other as the men in red came up short on this occasion.

Of course, the last two meetings between the two sides were played in front of capacity crowds but that will not be a factor this time around, owing to the current coronavirus pandemic.

Could that be a factor in the game or will both sides treat us to an excellent display of rugby?

After the England game, Wales travel to Italy on Saturday, March 13, while England will host France on the same day.

A win for either side this weekend will be crucial; a win for Wales and it sets them up for the Grand Slam while a win for England will reignite their hopes of retaining the Six Nations Championship.

Saturday’s game kicks off at 16:45 and can be seen on S4C as well as the BBC.

ENGLAND
Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels, George Martin, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Max Malins.

WALES
Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Jonathan Davies, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Kieran Hardy; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, James Botham, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Uilisi Halaholo.

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