Italy will look to start their Six Nations off with an upset when they host Wales at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Italy will be desperate change their fortunes of last season in the opener. The Azzurri finished stone last in 2016 with zero wins from five games.
But under the tutelage of Conor O’Shea the Italians claimed a historic first-ever win over the Springboks in November and the Irish coach said at the time that it was the just the first of many big scalps his side planned on claiming. The Italians will want to disrupt the status quo against Wales to give themselves momentum going into the rest of the competition.
Wales finished second in the last tournament and will use that placing as inspiration going into this contest. They were behind England by three points on the final points table but still scored more tries than their old rivals with 17 to 13.
Wales will need a solid victory against the Italians as those points will be vital, especially with the new bonus point system, to try and beat out the other high-scoring teams.
Wales coach Rob Howley has praised the experience of the Italian side and said it wasn’t easy to settle on his starting XV.
“It took a long time to select the team. We believe this is the best team to start the tournament,” said Howley.
“We are against a very competitive Italian side away from home in the Six Nations. We have gone with a lot of experience.
“We believe the majority of those players – 10 out of those 15 players started the game with South Africa – gave a good account of themselves, from a winning perspective, during the autumn period and it’s important we start well, hence the selection.”
O’Shea suggested that a solid start was an important stepping stone towards his team’s title hopes.
“People talk about marginal gains, that lovely phrase, but there are massive gains to make before we get marginal,” said O’Shea.
“You look at Simone Favaro, Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alessandro Zanni – who is on 99 caps – they want to win or do something towards the tail end of their career that will not just be a footnote.
“Some of that might be achieving incredible wins, some of that might be just be changing the mind set of Italian rugby. That’s the goal.”
Italy have made five changes to the side that beat South Africa last year. The only change to the Italian backline from that game is Edoardo Gori being promoted from the bench to the nine jersey at the expense of Giorgio Bronzini.
In the forward pack, there are few changes with Abraham Steyn donning the six jersey while Maxime Mata Mbanda will play in the fetcher role in place of Simone Favaro and Francesco Minto respectively. While in the tight-five George Biagi will take over at lock from Andries van Schalkwyk and Andrea Lovotti will start ahead of Sami Panico at loosehead.
Meanwhile, there is just one change to the Welsh backline from the side that beat the Springboks, with Rhys Webb returning from injury to start at scrum-half, partnering Dan Biggar. The side features four players seeking their first taste of Six Nations action, including prop Nicky Smith who starts at loosehead along with replacements Cory Hill, James King and Sam Davies.
Alun Wyn Jones leads Wales although former skipper Sam Warburton also starts, on the blindside flank.
Players to Watch:
For Italy: Tommaso Benvenuti could strain the Welsh outside defensive structures with his piercing runs and quick distribution. The utility-back’s strong marking will be also be a boon for the Italians as Benvenuti showed his worth when he held the Springboks out of his channel last year. Mata Maxime Mbanda has been a physical presence all season for Zebre. The mobile fetcher has an eye for the pilfer and could be a menace for the Welsh at the breakdown.
For Wales: Welsh tackle machine Justin Tipuric has been in inspirational form for both club and country and doesn’t look like he’s likely to slow down. Tipuric has not missed a single tackle since last year’s Six Nations proving his defensive acumen. George North is a lethal weapon within the Wales arsenal. The giant winger is a destructive presence as he mixes size with an disproportionate amount of speed. The Italians would do well to keep North under pressure.
Head-to-head: The battle of the number eights could be one to watch with the mercurial presence of Sergio Parisse facing off against the physical Ross Moriarty in the tight and loose phases. The dynamism that Parisse provides is one of Italy’s greatest strengths while Moriarty will constantly keep the Welsh on the front foot with his barnstorming runs.
2016: Wales won 67-14 in Cardiff
2015: Wales won 23-19 in Cardiff
2015: Wales won 60-21 in Rome
2014: Wales won 23-15 in Cardiff
2013: Wales won 26-9 in Rome
2012: Wales won 24-3 in Cardiff
2011: Wales won 24-6 in Rome
2010: Wales won 33-10 in Cardiff
2009: Wales won 20-15 in Rome
2008: Wales won 47-8 in Cardiff
Prediction: Despite the Italians’ one-hit wonder against the Springboks in November and playing at home, the Welsh should take it quite comfortably. Wales by 15.
Italy: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse(c), 7 Mata Maxime Mbanda, 6 Abraham Steyn, 5 George Biagi, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Michele Campagnaro
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Nicky Smith
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Cory Hill, 20 James King, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts
Date: Sunday, February 5
Venue: Stadio Olimpico
Time: 15:00 local (14:00 GMT)
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant Referees: Johnny Lacey (Ireland), Craig Maxwell-Keys (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)