Wales head coach Warren Gatland says his players are “continually playing for World Cup squad places.”
Gatland has made 10 changes and one positional switch for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against Italy in Rome.
Full-back Liam Williams, wing Josh Adams, centre Jonathan Davies – who captains Wales for the first time – lock Adam Beard and back-row forward Josh Navidi are the only starting XV survivors from last week’s 24-19 victory over France.
Navidi switches from flanker to number eight, while regular skipper Alun-Wyn Jones is among the replacements in a team that sees Leicester wing Jonah Holmes and Wasps flanker Thomas Young making their Six Nations debuts.
“We spoke about wanting to give everyone an opportunity,” Gatland said at Wales’ Nice training base, ahead of the departure for Rome.
“We are replicating what might happen later in the year (World Cup) with having the 31-man squad.
“There are a couple of things that may potentially happen in the World Cup with Cory Hill getting a cut on the knee last week – he had stitches – and Justin Tipuric getting a back strain. George North has a shoulder problem from last week, so hasn’t had a big role in training.
“It’s just about how we manage that. We wanted to include the eight players that weren’t involved last weekend.
“The players are continually playing for World Cup squad places. The Six Nations is a really important competition for us, but having that opportunity with the first two games away, we’ve been able to have a mini camp.
“It was a great chance for us to utilise the draw of the first two games being away from home and then try and replicate some of the issues we will face later in the year. It has been good from that point of view.”
Scrum-half Aled Davies and flanker Aaron Wainwright are handed first Six Nations starts, while centre Owen Watkin, fly-half Dan Biggar, who replaces Gareth Anscombe, hooker Elliot Dee and lock Jake Ball also feature.
Young is the son of Wasps rugby director and former Wales prop Dai Young, and he has been among the Premiership’s most consistent performers this season.
Victory for Wales at the Stadio Olimpico would make it 11 successive wins and equal their all-time unbeaten record set between 1907 and 1910.
They have also not lost to Italy for 12 years, while the Azzurri are without a Six Nations win against any team since 2015.
Gatland added: “I think they (Italy) will play a lot more rugby this week. They looked dangerous in the last 20 minutes against Scotland (last Saturday) even though there was a yellow card.
“It just shows that they can be dangerous with ball in hand, and I think they will play.
“We’ve got to stay in the arm-wrestle against these guys, create chances and then try and make the most of them.”
Gatland also paid tribute to Scarlets star Davies after awarding him leadership duties.
“Looking at that group of players, the team, he seemed the obvious choice to be given the opportunity, and he deserves the accolade,” Gatland said.
“Not that he needs to prove himself as a leader, but it’s good for him and it is recognition of what he has already achieved in the game.”
Well, if you weren’t excited about the Six Nations going into the opening weekend you will be now.
It was a fantastic round of fixtures that’s really set up the tournament nicely.
Without looking too far ahead Wales v England in a couple of weeks is going to be enormous, and that’s why there has been some surprise at Warren Gatland making a lot of changes this weekend for the Italy game.
For the players, the first game is always hard. You have to get up to the speed of international rugby and there’s so much going on off the pitch too. There’s lot of attention on the players, lots of media interest and that can be difficult for some.
You tend to use up a lot of nervous energy in that week leading up to the first game – it’s pretty draining.
Once you get that first game under your belt, and especially if you win, then it’s massive and it puts you in a great position for the rest of the tournament. Get a second
win under your belt and you are flying, confidence is high and you feel on top of the world.
Wales should now beat Italy, and if, as a player, you’ve played both those games then you go into the England game absolutely buzzing.
There’s obviously an argument for keeping a consistent side, but this is a real opportunity to give some fringe players a taste of competitive rugby, and that’s something Gatland will be keen to do with the World Cup around the corner – you never know when you need them.
He did it while I was playing a few years ago. He made wholesale changes and we ended up struggling for large parts and just about managed to get over the line – but it was a good learning experience for the players involved.
Wales made a typically slow start against France, but came away with a win which is the main thing, but England played incredibly well against Ireland, you have to give them credit for that.
France will look to bounce back, and they will be physical at Twickenham this weekend, but England shouldn’t have too many problems.
That will send them to Cardiff in the third round of fixtures with huge momentum. On the back of two competitive games, I see them being really game-ready, whereas Wales have had a pretty slow game against France, and lots of changes against Italy. They’re two different approaches, but can work for both sides.
France will be so disappointed in the manner of the defeat against Wales. Yoann Huget is a great player, but made a mistake, and then late on in the game they are throwing big, lopping passes in pretty poor conditions. I just don’t know what they are thinking.
The score in Dublin may have surprised some, but England’s performance deserves a huge amount of credit.
Their tempo was amazing, and they have quality through the side. The 10, 12, 13 looks very dangerous, with gas on the wings – it looks very, very good.
Henry Slade was a real standout. He’s a classy player and gave an all-round exceptional performance against Ireland. His skillset is amazing, he may not have really established himself as an international player prior to this, World class: Henry Slade was absolutely magnificent for England in Dublin. but he can kick
on now and be a big, big star heading towards the World Cup.
The way they play, England will take some stopping as the tournament goes on.
I thought Ireland lacked a bit of creativity against England. They weren’t able to control the pace or tempo of the game, and then when things were going against them, were unable to react with something different.
They now face a tough task at Murrayfield, where Scotland will always be tough to beat.
It’s difficult to tell exactly where Scotland are because Italy were so poor last week – it really was schoolboy stuff at times.
The score may have looked closer than it should have, but Italy were very disappointing.
It’s all very well for Scotland to run in tries like they did in the first hour, but now they have to push on against Ireland in a game that will be a very different proposition.
It’s going to be an interesting weekend.
Wales to beat Italy by 37 points
England to beat France by 18 points
Ireland to be Scotland by 12 points
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Henry Slade has revealed how a darts night in London acted as a team-bonding catalyst for England’s outstanding victory over Ireland last Saturday.
The squad gathered for refreshments and arrows at theme bar Flight Club on the eve of their departure for a week-long training camp in Portugal where the groundwork for an epic win in Dublin was laid.
Courtney Lawes emerged as the star of the evening after Nathan Hughes revealed “he has that long reach and just places the dart on the board”, while replacement prop Harry Williams finished bottom.
Eddie Jones sanctioned an evening requested by senior players believing that the danger of misbehaviour was outweighed by the benefit of allowing his Six Nations title challengers to connect.
“They didn’t get into trouble which was fantastic and isn’t always the case when you’ve got 30 guys going out and having a drink,” Jones said.
“They wanted to go into the camp ready to go, have some stories to tell and have some togetherness. That’s where we’re going as a team.”
Slade, who served notice of his arrival as a Test player by scoring two tries at the Aviva Stadium, appreciates the value of gathering in a social environment.
“We had a room, played some darts, had a couple of drinks and had a real good time,” Slade said.
“We do a very similar thing at Exeter at the start of pre-season and it’s a great way to get to know each other.
“You feel closer to the bloke next to you because you’ve shared experiences off the field. It’s not purely business and work – you’re playing with your mates.
“It feels like your back at school playing with your mates, who you genuinely want to do well for.
“The coaches came to us and said ‘is there anything you think would be beneficial?’ so a couple of the senior boys got together.
“We had a room. There were loads of electronic dartboards, linked up to a scoreboard. You didn’t have to actually count yourself – some people would be buggered with that.
“I never really play at all but I had a hell of a checkout – three doubles. I shocked myself.
“The bulk of us have been here for a few years now. We’ve had a real emphasis on being together on and off the field, getting together in little groups off the field and having a good time.
“We didn’t tend to do that as much before. You share experiences off the field and that brings you together on the field.”