Wales boss Warren Gatland has hailed Taulupe Faletau’s “world-class” quality as he prepares to captain his country for the first time.
Bath number eight Faletau will lead Wales in Sunday’s Six Nations clash against Italy at the Principality Stadium, with regular skipper Alun Wyn Jones rested.
And Scarlets flanker James Davies makes his Test debut in a team showing 10 changes from the one beaten 37-27 by Ireland last time out.
Davies, 27, was an integral part of the Scarlets’ PRO12 title triumph last term, in addition to helping them reach this season’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals.
He also featured for the Great Britain Olympic silver medal-winning Rugby sevens squad at Rio 2016 and is the younger brother of Wales and British and Irish Lions centre Jonathan Davies.
Wing George North’s selection comes four days on from him missing Northampton’s Aviva Premiership game against Sale, after which interim Saints boss Alan Gaffney suggested the 25-year-old had not wanted to play for his club.
North had been released by Wales as it was a Six Nations fallow week, but he did not feature for Northampton amid reports he had an arrangement with former Saints Rugby director Jim Mallinder that he would not play club Rugby on rest weekends.
Gatland said: “It is a great opportunity for Taulupe.
“He is a world-class player, hugely experienced and this will be great for his development and we are looking forward to seeing those leadership qualities come through.
“We have made some changes, but we are bringing in a lot of quality and a lot of experience with the likes of Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, George North and Taulupe.
“Add into that James Davies, who gets his first cap, and Elliot Dee, who gets his first start – this is a great opportunity for them to play tournament Rugby.
“It is challenging, making changes, but we have picked a really exciting team, and Sunday is their chance.”
Faletau has recovered from injury to make a first appearance in this season’s tournament, and he takes charge of a team that also includes the likes of North, hooker Dee, centre Owen Watkin and fly-half Gareth Anscombe.
The five starting XV survivors from Dublin are Liam Williams, who moves from wing to full-back instead of Leigh Halfpenny, wing Steff Evans, centre Hadleigh Parkes, scrum-half Gareth Davies and lock Cory Hill.
TEAM NEWS 🏴 @taulupe returns to lead Wales against @Federugby. Croeso nol i’r wythwr profiadol Taulupe Faletau, sydd yn arwain Cymru dydd Sul: https://t.co/9Z0uPrdlFx #WALvITA pic.twitter.com/oZc2uOnSEv
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 7, 2018
Gatland has opted for a new-look back row of Davies, Justin Tipuric in the number six shirt, and Faletau.
But centre Scott Williams, fly-half Dan Biggar, flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi, plus number eight Ross Moriarty, are among those not involved in the match-day 23.
Wales are effectively out of the title running following successive losses at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium, but Gatlland has still made more changes than many might have expected.
The replacements’ bench, meanwhile, includes Wales’ entire first-choice front row of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee, while there are also chances for highly rated Cardiff Blues forwards Seb Davies and Ellis Jenkins.
Wales team to play Italy in Cardiff on Sunday:
L Williams (Saracens); G North (Northampton), O Watkin (Ospreys), H Parkes (Scarlets), S Evans (Scarlets); G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), G Davies (Scarlets); N Smith (Ospreys), E Dee (Dragons), T Francis (Exeter), C Hill (Dragons), B Davies (Ospreys), J Tipuric (Ospreys), J Davies (Scarlets), T Faletau (Bath, capt).
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), R Evans (Scarlets), S Lee (Scarlets), S Davies (Cardiff Blues), E Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), A Davies (Scarlets), R Patchell (Scarlets), L Halfpenny (Scarlets).
While Italy may have only won four out of 20 matches since Conor O’Shea’s arrival as national team head coach, it’s worth looking at club sides Zebre and Treviso to see true signs of rugby’s development in Italy.
The Irishman was tasked with one of the most difficult jobs in world rugby when he took up the role in March 2016 after the Azzurri had finished bottom of the Six Nations in four out of the last five seasons.
But although many will point to the 138 points shipped in the first three matches of the championship as a sign of hardly any progress, positive changes are starting to show for the Pro14 sides.
A week after Ireland crushed Italy 56-19 in Dublin, Benetton and Zebre secured a first away double for Italian clubs in the league’s history.
Interestingly, Benetton have won eight out of 16 matches in the Pro14 this term – a significant improvement from three, three and five victories in their last three campaigns.
For Zebre, four wins to date and a number of close defeats represent a positive following three, five and three wins since the 2014/15 Pro 12 season.
Although Zebre are not at Benetton’s level – losing 24-17 away in December – Italian clubs have earned respect from their rivals due to their improvements in skillset, game plan and ability to play a more attractive brand of rugby.
For team stats, Zebre are two tries away from matching their 38 tries scored in the whole of last season – with another four regular season matches still remaining – while Benetton have already scored one more try than last season.
It, without doubt, represents a massive step forward for Italian rugby.
O’Shea’s squad is mainly made up of players from the local clubs with 15 from Benetton, 13 from Treviso and one each from Stade Francais, Toulouse and Fiamme Oro in Rome.
Zebre star Matteo Minozzi has been the stand-out player for the national side this Six Nations – an example of a young star developed through the Italian system.
Angelo Esposito is another flyer for the Parma side – one of the leading lights of the Italian back-line – who is currently sidelined with a knee injury.
The Azzurri’s results may not be capturing the attention of fans worldwide but O’Shea is the chief lieutenant orchestrating the changes – drafting together two clubs and helping with the recruitment of players and coaches beneath.
Michael Bradley, Brendan Venter, Wayne Smith and Mike Catt are just some of the big names O’Shea has roped in to aid the development of Italian rugby.
With signs of progress beginning to show, Italian club rugby is certainly in its most promising place yet.
The British and Irish Lions wing could make his first appearance of the tournament when the team’s ailing title defence resumes in Paris having proved his fitness during a training session at Twickenham on Saturday.
“Elliot trained very well and is definitely in contention for selection. He’s a very good player,” head coach Eddie Jones said.
Jones is expected to keep changes to a minimum when he names his team to face France on Thursday morning with Daly a possible replacement for Jonny May.
Nathan Hughes is set to continue at number eight having benefited from a further two weeks of training after making his comeback from a significant knee injury in the 25-13 defeat by Scotland.
“Nathan will definitely be better for the run against Scotland, he’s still a bit off the pace but is moving in the right direction,” Jones said.
Jones reiterated his decision to no longer use public transport having been verbally and physically abused over the two legs of his train journey from Edinburgh to London via Manchester on February 25.
Video footage of one incident filmed outside Manchester Oxford Road station has seen the Scottish fans who turned on the Australian after he had posed for a selfie widely condemned.
“I don’t think so (will have more security in place),” Jones told Sky Sports News.
“That was probably just a unique situation after quite a big build up to the game when a number of Scottish people said things.
“They had a great result and coming back on the train, there were a lot of people who were happy and that happiness boiled over into a bit more. In that situation, I wouldn’t go on a train again.
“In all honesty, I just got on with it. It’s part of the job and in my job you either get abused, you get slapped on the back and told how good you are or you get advice.
“It is always one of those three coming at you. The abuse isn’t nice, so you have to keep away from that.
“I’ve had that, so maybe I have had it for a couple of weeks and won’t get it for a while now.
“I have never wanted anything to be made of it. I didn’t bring it forward, I was just happy that it was finished. All I am worried about is coaching well against France.”