The Six Nations doesn’t always begin with the champions – the fixtures are usually arranged before the preceding season’s competition is over – but it seems appropriate that this year the competition opener does is also the first home game for not only the side that won last year, but the year before at that.
Wales could not ask for a better start to their attempt to be the first team in the modern era to win a hat-trick of titles. They are a formidable side at the Millennium Stadium and in Italy they face not only the perennial favourites for the wooden spoon, but a side who have only once avoided defeat in Wales – a drawn game in 2006.
Warren Gatland’s side are not without their problems, though. Ryan Jones, who led them in three of last year’s games, will miss the entire tournament through injury. So, too, will lock Ian Evans, who is suspended after being sent off for stamping. Prop Gethin Jenkins will also miss this game through injury, and regular captain Sam Warburton will be a game time decision having not played since November. That is a lot of skill and expertise to take away from a pack who dominated last year.
Fortunately, all of the main Welsh weapons behind the scrum will be present, with George North and Alex Cuthbert on the wings again likely to be the source of most of their tries, whilst full back Leigh Halfpenny is rightly odds on to be the top scorer in the tournament.
For the Italians, it is pretty much a case of the same old story. A strong pack buttressed by veterans like Martin Castrogiovanni and led by the best Number 8 in the world, Sergio Parisse, will again be let down by the abject lack of talent behind it. A glimmer of hope there is that their one truly talented back, Andrea Masi, played his first half of rugby on Saturday after more than four months out, but even then this game may well come too soon for him.
Back Wales to win by between 11 and 20 points in your sports betting picks, at odds of 3.5 with Ladbrokes, with the first scoring play to be a Welsh penalty (2.88 with BetVictor)