Italy v Wales: Wales' midfield and Italy's consistency in focus
Last Updated: 05/02/17 1:13pm
A look at some of the key talking points ahead of Wales' Six Nations outing against Italy at Stadio Olimpico on Sunday (kick-off 2pm).
Italy have won three of their last five Test matches but have not been victorious at Stadio Olimpico since beating Ireland 22-15 in 2013.
While Wales have won their last ten matches against Italy, they are winless in their last two away games in the Championship.
New leader of the pack
Since 2011, Sam Warburton has been the man at the helm for Wales but in 2017 Alun Wyn Jones has been tasked with leading the side.
The 31-year-old is no stranger to captaining Wales; he first performed the role back in 2009 and took charge of their tour to South Africa in the summer of 2014.
Jones also skippered the British and Irish Lions in the third and decisive Test against the Wallabies in 2013, experience that has made him sure of what kind of leader he wants to be.
"In a way the captaincy is just a label, but I'm ready and able to make decisions as captain when needed," Jones said.
"But if we can grow more leaders in the team, we can get to the point where we're making similar decisions without having to consult with each other.
"So, it would be a case of job done, let's move on to the next challenge as a group and as a team.
"I don't want followers: followers are for Twitter. Also, if I'm not playing well I'll still be available to be deselected. If that wasn't the case I wouldn't have accepted the captaincy."
Form shouldn't be a problem for Jones, and shifting the responsibility onto his shoulders is designed to free up another to perform. Warburton is a nuisance to every side on his day, and with Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric on form, Wales' back row could become the threat of old.
Italy's inability to go back-to-back
November 19 2016 is marked in the history books as one of the greatest days in Italian rugby, as they toppled South Africa by 20-18 at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. However just a week later came the opposite, as they fell at the hands of Tonga 19-17.
When it comes to Italy and their prospects in this Six Nations and beyond, consistency of output is king.
One-off victories such as the South African triumph prove that Italy have made progress in recent times, but losses to sides like Tonga indicate they have not learned to deliver over any given period of time.
Two home matches start their schedule this season and that in itself provides an opportunity, yet Wales and Ireland are not easy opponents.
In reality, this Championship may not be about delivering back-to-back wins, instead it may be about ensuring back-to-back performances that showcase their development.
Wales' midfield options
Jamie Roberts features on the bench for Wales in a Six Nations match for the first time since the 2009 Championship decider against Ireland.
At the Stadio Olimpico, Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies take their Scarlets partnership into the Test arena, hoping to continue where they left off after helping Wales to victory against South Africa in November.
Williams was instrumental in Scarlets' gutsy Champions Cup victory over Toulon in December, and his ball-playing could be vital to Wales' hopes. The desire is for Wales to continue to expand their game and a potent Williams and Davies will be integral to that.
However, Roberts still has plenty to offer; his physicality constantly guaranteeing gain-line success, while also proving useful in defence.
With all three fit, it provides Howley with the opportunity to mix and match as needed, and with their average age being just 28, the competition for places will keep Wales' midfield sharp for seasons to come.
Azzurri's new coaching set-up
Italy have taken home 11 wooden spoons in their 17 tournaments, but of late they have invested heavily in an experienced coaching staff.
Collectively Conor O'Shea, Brendan Venter and Mike Catt have a wealth of knowledge, and the man that's seen so many coaches come and go, Sergio Parisse, believes that this time around they're on the money.
"I've seen a lot of coaches over the years in Italy and I can tell you that we're in a good place," said Parisse
"For Italian rugby, it's great to have a Director of Rugby who wants to give all of his knowledge, his experience and to create a legacy for the next five to ten years."
A legacy is vital for Italian rugby, but with question marks currently over their inclusion in the Championship, results in 2017 are important.
O'Shea and his team need to embed principles and belief in a short space of time; national training camps are short, and outside of that not many of their players are competing in the upper-echelons of European rugby.
Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny
Since Liam Williams arrived on the international scene, there has been plenty of debate surrounding whether he should be included alongside Leigh Halfpenny, or instead of him.
Williams has been accommodated on the wing this weekend, but it was actually in the No 15 jersey that he made his debut for Wales, while Halfpenny first ran out for his country in the No 14 jersey with Lee Byrne was the preferred full-back in 2008.
Williams' counter-attacking skills were on display against the All Blacks in the summer, cementing his inclusion in the team, but with the likes of Keelan Giles coming through the ranks on the wing, it could become a straight shoot-out between Halfpenny and Williams at 15.
Dan Biggar has proven himself a reliable goal-kicker, which means Wales can afford to opt for Williams' expansive nature ahead of Halfpenny's metronomic boot if they wish.
Italy: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 1 Andrea Lovotti, 2 Ornel Gega, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 4 Marco Fuser, 5 George Biagi, 6 Abraham Steyn, 7 Maxime Mata M'Banda, 8 Sergio Parisse.
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 Josh Furno, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Michele Campagnaro.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb; 1 Rob Evans, 2 Ken Owens, 3 Samson Lee, 4 Jake Ball, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 6 Sam Warburton, 7 Justin Tipuric, 8 Ross Moriarty.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Cory Hill, 20 James King, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts.