Wales head coach Warren Gatland says his players are “continually playing for World Cup squad places.”
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 Gallagher Premiership’s most consistent performers this season.
— Welsh Rugby Union ? (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 7, 2019
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.”
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