Grand Slam champions Wales host Italy at the Principality in the Six Nations' opener on Saturday as the side look to bounce back from a heartbreaking World Cup campaign.
Wayne Pivac’s first assignment as Wales’ coach sees his side take on an Italy outfit that everyone will expect them to beat handsomely, with the Red Dragon desperate to start their Grand Slam defence with a win, however, this may not be as simple as it would seem.
Under former-coach Warren Gatland, Wales would have been expected to turn up and be incredibly strong defensively against any team and eek out the points through the boot of Dan Biggar whilst also looking to utilise a powerful forward pack along with strong runners on the wing and in the centre of the park. However, under Pivac their game plan will likely be a far more fluid game as was his MO while in Llanelli with the Scarlets. Of course, this new style will not likely be one that is immediately worked into Wales’ game as the side go into a period of serious transition following the departure of their coach of 12 years.
Now, this match could go a number of different ways. First of all, Pivac may not look to tinker with the formula too much in his first few months as Wales’ coach, instead looking to maintain that defensive solidity whilst slowly implementing his own philosophy on the side. The match could also see Wales come out with a new-look side that tries to implement more of a passing game that opens up the opposition, which we feel is likely against an Italy side that should not give Wales too much of a problem whatever team they opt for.
Finally, we could see Pivac give Wales licence to attack in droves, with the Grand Slam champions playing Italy on their own patch something that they will target as one they should be winning handsomely, try bonus point and all. If this were England, Ireland or any of the other two sides then we could only really foresee a defensive Welsh side set up to edge past their opponents as the side could be vulnerable looking to implement fresh ideas against a top class side. However, with Italy as the visitors, we think Wales will attack as they will scent blood even before the ball has been kicked in the Welsh capital.
For Italy, this is a game we worry about them in. The Italians have struggled to keep pace with any of the tier one nations over the last decade and, with the exception of a shock win or two in this time, they have been soundly beaten all too often. Currently sitting outside of the top 10 in 12th, Italy look likely to finish at the bottom of the pile once again as their woes in the Six Nations continue. Retirement for talismanic captain Sergio Parisse has not seen him rule himself out of playing which largely defeats the point of this announcement, but we aren’t complaining considering the fact the forward has been one of rugby’s great servants. Parisse has mentioned that he plans to play for the side nearer the conclusion of the tournament despite not being picked in the original squad, but we do not think this will have a major impact on much of their campaign as despite his mercurial talent, even he has been unable to lift the side to a position in which they can win games.
Therefore in this one we are backing a comfortable Welsh win as the curtain is officially lifted on Pivac’s Welsh reign. Wales have not lost to Italy in their last 13 battles with the last time they tasted defeat against the Italians coming in March 2007 in a shock loss. Since then, Wales have been perfect against their opponents and we do not think this record will be tarnished anytime soon against an Italian side that do not look like they are up to much once again. A 67-14 hammering of their visitors in 2016 constituted their biggest win over the Italians and while it is unlikely they will better that margin, we think they won’t be too far away from it by the end of the game, especially if Pivac gives the likes of Josh Adams and George North licence to attack with quick ball on the wings.
With this in mind, our two bets for this game revolve around Wales claiming a very healthy win to start their campaign off in try-bonus point winning style. In Italy last year this fixture ended 26-15 to Wales in a drab encounter as both sides struggled for fluency. In this one, we expect to see Wales dominate at the breakdown and set their backs up well as they continually push Italy’s pack back, piling on the pressure and forcing them to infringe, thus conceding possession and position, seeting up a very comfortable win for the home side.
Pivac’s choice at scrum-half and 10 will be interesting here as depending on the half-back partnership he chooses will speak volumes for how he wants to play. Any inclusion of Dan Biggar will bring a supreme kicker, a defensive powerhouse and a very safe pair of hands but will see the side not quite as offensive as they can be. Biggar is a favourite amongst the Welsh faithful, and it will be very interesting to see how he does under Pivac considering his leaning towards playing more attacking rugby..
Our second bet sees us backing a Welsh try scorer and we are looking to maximise our potential winnings by backing a first try scorer. Under Gatland we might have been tempted to back one of the forwards to go over first as Wales look to secure strong set-piece ball whilst trying to build a base for themselves. Under Pivac though we feel the ball will go wide quickly as the side look to attack and show that they are not just a defensive powerhouse. Our man to go over first in this one then is speedster Josh Adams. Adams was huge in Wales’ run to fourth at the World Cup and he looked outstanding with both his clever footwork and raw pace and power something that will surely see him become a mainstay of Pivac’s team if he can stay fit. While George North is a man who we were tempted to back, especially if he plays in the centre and Wales are able to create quick ball for the back to run on to, but we feel Adams is Wales’ best finishers, and we think he will be on the scoresheet first in the tournament opener.
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