Wales launch Six Nations treble bid with Italy clash
Wales' coach Warren Gatland, pictured during an international rugby union Test match, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, on November 30, 2013 - by Glyn Kirk
The Azzurri will take the field at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium having never won any of their 10 previous meetings against Wales in the Principality.
While a bitter row between the Welsh Rugby Union and the four professional regions over the future of the club game in Wales has still to be resolved, Saturday's clash will allow for a measure of home unity between all factions, if only for 80 minutes.
Wales have lost just one of their last 10 Six Nations matches, yet it was a dreadful first 40 minutes in last season's Championship opener against Ireland that ultimately condemned them to a 30-22 defeat.
Even so, it would be a staggering upset were Italy to inflict fresh first-round misery on Wales, given their one and only win away from Rome in the Six Nations was a 37-17 victory against Scotland at Murrayfield in 2007.
However, Italy did throw last season's Championship wide open by beating France first up and Wales coach Warren Gatland insisted his side would take nothing for granted.
"We started slowly last year and know we need to be ready from the off.
"Italy started last year's tournament with a win over France so they will be ready on Saturday and we need to start well and build confidence and momentum," added the New Zealander, whose successful 2013 also saw him guide the British and Irish Lions to a series win in Australia.
Wales, with regular captain Sam Warburton on the bench because he's not yet fully match fit following a shoulder injury, will be led by lock Alun Wyn Jones, who also deputised as skipper for the flanker in the Lions' decider in Sydney.
Meanwhile Dan Lydiate, another Lions star in Australia, is all set to take his place on the blindside flank following the birth of his first child during the week.
Behind the scrum, Lydiate's Racing Metro and Lions team-mate Jamie Roberts returns at centre, after missing last year's November Tests due to injury, with Gatland's most contentious choice coming at fly-half where the Scarlets' Rhys Priestland has edged out Dan Biggar.
But with points machine Leigh Halfpenny at full-back, Wales ought to have more than enough pace and power to beat Italy.
Indeed in wing George North, Wales have a player who combines both attributes.
"He's an incredible athlete with great power, speed and technique, but he's not the only dangerous player in Wales's back line," said Italy coach Jacques Brunel.
However, the Frenchman added: "It goes without saying we're going there with a win on our minds but more than anything I expect a technically-strong performance and the kind of strong, defence that we showed at last year's tournament."
Renowned for the forward power, the Azzurri -- according to the International Rugby Board -- are set to field the most experienced pack in Test history on Saturday with a combined 490 caps.
That would break world champions New Zealand's record of 451 posted against England at Twickenham in November.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse, a world-class No 8, and prop Martin Castrogiovanni are both proven performers.
But injuries mean Italy's back division has a youthful look, with Treviso wing Angelo Esposito set to make his Test debut amid a clutch of novice three-quarters.
And with everything seemingly set fair for a home win, Wales assistant coach Rob Howley said political infighting would not distract the side.
"As a player, as a coach, you can't go anywhere in Wales at the moment without being asked what's happening off the field," the former scrum-half admitted.
"But there will be no excuses for the performance on Saturday. We expect to play well and we expect to get the championship off to a winning start."