Planet Rugby

Preview: Wales v Italy

31st January 2014 00:21

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Sam Warburton with Warren Gatland at Six Nations launch

Treble hunting: Wales

Wales will begin their charge for an unprecedented third successive Six Nations Championship with an ideal first game, against Italy on Saturday.

No nation in this six-team format has ever won three straight titles but it is the quality in Warren Gatland's squad that could break the drought.

For a good few years now there's been a familiar feel to this group of players as the back-three picks itself, three centres can easily rotate should there be an injury, the back-row has strength and wonderful variety in style whilst the tight five also boasts British and Irish Lions qualities.

Put that against an Italy side that could be on its way to a possible tournament whitewash and there should be one winner in Cardiff this week.

Wales simply have too much firepower in their arsenal as players return from either uncertain times at their regions or testing months in France. Yes, five paragraphs in and the mess that has blighted the regional game in Wales surfaces - a saga that has seen players move on, break new ground by signing a central contract or just sit tight and hope a solution is found. Expect banners of discontent from supporters on Saturday.

One cannot blame the players for succumbing to the lure of France, particularly if the Welsh house isn't showing signs of getting into order. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the starting line-up wearing red in Cardiff this weekend, don't, or will soon not be, playing regional rugby.

But, as many will happily do so over the coming weeks, let us stick a pin in that subject.

Wales unsurprisingly enter as favourites but whilst having three home games they do face tough trips to Ireland and England. Those are two nations who we expect to challenge Wales for the title so gaining momentum in this opener will be of paramount importance.

Coach Gatland will hope things click back into gear with little rustiness on Saturday and selection sees him plump for an old faithful in the shape of Rhys Priestland at ten, despite Dan Biggar having been the more consistent over the season. Granted, Priestland has hit form of late but Biggar is immensely unlucky. Statistic lovers amongst you may wish to know Wales have won just one of their last ten fixtures Priestland has started. It will soon be two.

Why? Italy simply do not possess the quality to cause an upset, as a dismal display from Treviso and Zebre during this season's Heineken Cup Pools proves. A total of zero points were recorded by the two sides while they occupy tenth and eleventh spot in the PRO12.

Furthermore they face a Welsh team that oozes stability and is in complete harmony as a playing unit on the international stage. This will be their release from domestic troubles.

Ones to watch:

For Wales: Take your pick. Leigh Halfpenny will of course be a focal point of the camera due to next season's move to Toulon while Toby Faletau is one of many excellent number eights in this competition. But let's go for Scott Williams and Alun-Wyn Jones. Williams continues to be an underrated player and may well find himself out of the XV when Jonathan Davies fully recovers. Until then, he'll give his all going forward while captain Jones gets through a shift in the second-row. Of course also keep an eye on a man in top form, George North.

For Italy: Speaking of North, Jacques Brunel has handed Angelo Esposito possibly the toughest debut opponent going as the Treviso wing faces off with the Saint. The 20-year-old, who was included in Brunel's 2012 Six Nations squad, will need Luke McLean to be vocal at full-back while another 20-year-old, Michele Campagnaro, dons number thirteen. Skipper Sergio Parisse as always will be the heartbeat of the Azzurri pack from number eight.

Head-to-head: It will be interesting to see how Jamie Roberts goes against Alberto Sgarbi. Sgarbi rarely lets Italy down both with his carrying and in defence. With Roberts possibly not yet up to full speed after injury, their personal battle in midfield is one to watch closely.

Recent results:

2013: Wales won 26-9 in Rome
2012: Wales won 24-3 in Cardiff
2011: Wales won 24-16 in Rome
2010: Wales won 33-10 in Cardiff
2009: Wales won 20-15 in Rome
2008: Wales won 47-8 in Cardiff
2007: Italy won 23-20 in Rome
2006: Draw 18-18 in Cardiff
2005: Wales won 38-8 in Rome
2004: Wales won 44-10 in Cardiff
2003: Wales won 27-15 in Canberra

Prediction: Nothing too flash at this early stage but Wales to pull away by about 20!

The teams:

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones (c), 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Ryan Bevington, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Andrew Coombs, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 James Hook, 23 Liam Williams.

Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Tommaso Iannone.

Date: Saturday, February 1
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
Television match official: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
Assessor: Clayton Thomas (Wales)

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