Routine win on the cards for Wales in low profile opener
6:17am Saturday 1st February 2014
6:17am Saturday 1st February 2014
PERHAPS it's down to the spat between the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions or maybe it's because Italy are the opponents on opening weekend, but it hasn't been the most high-profile of Six Nations build-ups.
The Azzurri are no longer seen as minnows and beat France and Ireland in last year's tournament.
However, a home clash against the Italians is not the most dramatic of openers with the bookies predicting a one-sided romp for Warren Gatland's men as they chase a historic hat-trick of titles.
With France hosting England in Paris and Ireland welcoming Scotland to Dublin, Cardiff is not quite the place to be although there will be plenty of attention a mile and a half down the road as the Bluebirds take on Norwich in a key Premier League encounter.
But Wales have a job to do and need to not only win but win handsomely.
The 2013 competition showed how important points difference is; when England fluffed their lines against the Italians they left the door ajar for their Welsh rivals.
That 30-3 drubbing was rather predictably followed by autumn anguish against South Africa and Australia but Wales will be keen to show that they remain kings of Europe.
Gatland is back at the helm after sitting out 2013 because of his British and Irish Lions commitments.
His side for this afternoon contains few surprises with the only real tough call being made at fly-half.
The Kiwi plumped for Scarlets number 10 Rhys Priestland ahead of Ospreys rival Dan Biggar and it appears a harsh decision.
Biggar was the man in possession of the jersey and had done little to be dropped – that means Priestland must repay the faith of his boss.
The rest of the team picked itself and it is that stability that means they will are favourites to lift the trophy for a third year on the spin.
But that's not to say that there are not selection dilemmas lurking with a number of players needing a big performance ahead of next weekend's key game in Dublin.
Former Newport Gwent Dragons blindside Dan Lydiate is a favourite of Gatland and defence coach Shaun Edwards but his form since heading to Racing Metro has been alarming.
The 26-year-old was left lying on the floor when Charlie Walker broke through to score for Harlequins against the Parisians in the Heineken Cup after an anguished and fruitless dive; it was enough to make you reach for the remote to rewind and check that it was indeed Lydiate that had missed the tackle.
He is a comfort blanket for this Wales side but needs to produce the goods because of who will be wearing the number 20 jersey this afternoon.
Captain Sam Warburton is in the bench after recovering from a shoulder injury and history suggests he will be brought back in when fully fit.
That leaves Lydiate and openside Justin Tipuric fighting it out – the latter needs to produce a stunning, man of the match performance if he is to get the nod at the Aviva Stadium.
It will help his cause that Wales want to impress with ball in hand against the Italians, to play with tempo and to avoid a turgid set piece battle.
They have the power runners to cause damage in George North, Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams and Jamie Roberts so it is up to the back row to quell Italy's area of strength.
Number eight Sergio Parisse is their talisman and flanker Alessandro Zanni is a class act. Take them out of the game and Wales' afternoon will be even more comfortable.
There is little doubt that it will be a home win at the Millennium Stadium by 15 points or more, then it's on to Dublin when the tournament really comes alive.
Wales: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Scarlets), J Roberts (Racing Metro), G North (Northampton); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Racing Metro); P James (Bath), R Hibbard (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Perpignan), AW Jones (Ospreys, captain), D Lydiate (Racing Metro), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Dragons). Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), R Bevington (Ospreys), R Jones (Scarlets), A Coombs (Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), R Webb (Ospreys), J Hook (Perpignan), L Williams (Scarlets).
Italy: L McLean (Treviso); A Esposito (Treviso), M Campagnaro (Treviso), A Sgarbi (Treviso), L Sarto (Zebre), T Allan (Perpignan), E Gori (Treviso); M Rizzo (Treviso) L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Toulon) Q Geldenhuys (Zebre), M Bortolami (Zebre), S Parisse (Stade Francais, captain). Replacements: D Giazzon (Zebre), A De Machi (Treviso), J Furno (Biarritz Olympique), F Minto (Treviso), T W Botes (Treviso) L Orquera (Zebre), T Iannone (Zebre).
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
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