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New leaders but strength in depth for Wales

It may be all change for Wales as they enter this year’s RBS 6 Nations with a new skipper and coach but they certainly won’t be lacking in experience and international caps.

First up for Rob Howley, filling in for Warren Gatland four years after helping Wales to the title in the same role, is a trip to Rome to face Wales, where Guinness PRO12 club rivalries will be at the forefront of the clash.

Alun Wyn Jones will take on the captaincy after Sam Warburton stepped down, and it was in Italy that Jones first led his country, back in 2009.

The Azzurri haven’t beaten Wales for a decade but their autumn victory over South Africa proved that Conor O’Shea’s men are most certainly a force to be reckoned with, especially at home.

Experienced heads is what Howley has called for, naming 677 caps worth of experience in his starting XV to face Italy – an average of more than 45 caps per man.

This year they will kick off their campaign in Italy on the Sunday of the opening weekend, before a quick turnaround to face England in Cardiff.

After the rest week they face a trip to Edinburgh to take on Scotland before hosting Ireland in round four and travelling to Paris to face France on the final weekend.

Club form?

Five Ospreys will start for Wales against Italy with three more on the bench. Half-backs Dan Biggar and the returning Rhys Webb, prop Nicky Smith, skipper Jones and openside Justin Tipuric and it’s easy to see just why.

The Ospreys are the form team in the Guinness PRO12 presently – they sit top of the table, three points clear of Munster and Leinster and have not lost a competitive fixture since mid-November.

They have won 11 games on the spin since losing to Harlequins in the Anglo-Welsh Cup in November, including defeating Connacht at the turn of the year.

Scarlets are also enjoying an impressive season in the PRO12, they sit in fifth position ahead of the Six Nations starting and put in a couple of fantastic performances in Europe in January.

They are well represented in Wales’ back-line for the trip to Rome, with Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams named in the centres and Liam Williams on the wing.

Such has been the form of Scott Williams in a Scarlets shirt, he has been selected ahead of 86-cap centre Jamie Roberts who had not previously missed an RBS 6 Nations start since 2009.

Ken Owens starts at hooker in the front row alongside Samson Lee, while Jake Ball partners captain Jones in the engine room, with Rob Evans and Gareth Davies’ form for the Scarlets also rewarded with a place on the replacements bench.

Meanwhile Cardiff Blues and Newport Gwent Dragons provide one player apiece, Warburton named at blindside flanker and Cory Hill on the bench as lock cover.

Coach’s perspective

Leading Wales into an RBS 6 Nations Championship is not unfamiliar territory for Rob Howley – he previously held a similar position in 2013 when Warren Gatland was last named Lions boss.

With Gatland back in that role, Howley will take on the same position this year, and led Wales in their November Tests.

It’s all about combinations for Howley and he will be hoping the Webb-Biggar Ospreys half-back axis and Scott Williams and his Scarlets colleague Jonathan Davies in midfield will produce the magic.

“I’ve learned a lot in the last nine years under the guidance and tutelage of Warren Gatland. There’s a bit of Kiwi in me somewhere. You have to be tough,” Howley said.

“We’ll come in under the radar and back ourselves. We’ve got a captain who backs himself and I know all of our players will follow.

“He [Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones] has high expectations, and the supporters do, as do we as coaches.

“We want to be highly-competitive and in with a chance of winning the tournament going into the last weekend.

“There was a huge focus going into the autumn series on skills, conditioning players with the ball in particular. We’ll continue with that sort of best practice.”

Ones to watch

It takes a lot to force Jamie Roberts onto the bench but Scott Williams has managed it with his performances for the Scarlets this season.

The all-Scarlets midfield of Williams and Jonathan Davies started against South Africa in November and will do the same again in Rome.

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Camerasport

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Camerasport

With his slighter build, Williams is a different style of centre to Roberts, but has shown this season just how effective he can be.

Another player who has enjoyed a stellar year is Justin Tipuric, and the Ospreys man will be one to watch in the back row.

Combining with Blues rival but Wales team-mate Sam Warburton, Tipuric could be one of the stars of the Championship, and made his first start at Test level against the Azzurri.

Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €30 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final