Italy: Winless in last year’s Six Nations, Italy then lost to Argentina but beat the United States and Canada on their summer tour. In the November Tests, they were on the wrong end of the scoreline against New Zealand and Tonga, but recorded a famous, first-ever victory over South Africa. The 20-18 win over the Springboks in Florence – their first over a SANZAR nation - should offer Italy encouragement for Round One and beyond.
Wales: As for Wales, they finished runner-up behind Grand Slam winners England in last season’s Six Nations with three wins, one draw and one loss. They then succumbed to a 3-0 series whitewash against the All Blacks in New Zealand on their summer tour, which included a midweek 40-7 loss to the Chiefs. Last autumn saw a 32-8 reverse to Australia before ending 2016 on a high with three successive victories over Argentina, Japan and South Africa.
The home side will be led once again by their talismanic, inspirational captain Sergio Parisse, with the Number 8 continuing to be at the forefront of everything good about Italian rugby.
Following recent discussion about whether the Six Nations should adopt a promotion/relegation system, and with Tier Two nations such as Georgia and Romania continuing to develop and grow, the Azzurri will want a strong campaign to show they are worthy of their place in the competition.
Since their introduction back in 2000, Italy have ended up winless with the wooden spoon on 11 occasions. For the sake of domestic rugby in Italy, where both Treviso and Zebre have had their struggles in recent times, it would be refreshing to see the national team perform at the level fans know they can.
In Rome, against Wales, expect the Italians to combine their traditional forward strength in the pack with a running game out wide. Traditionally known for a strong set-piece – a solid line-out and combative scrummage – that won’t change under O’Shea’s stewardship. But with the likes of Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna and Tommaso Benvenuti behind the scrum, they have enough firepower to cause Wales more than a few problems in Rome.
Without injured Bath forwards Luke Charteris and Toby Faletau, the travelling Welsh side do face a potential banana skin this weekend. Howley and his coaching team have come in for criticism from some quarters for their style of play, and captain Wyn Jones will look to show his side have the footballing ability and tactical nous to play some rugby.
Given George North’s recent troubles with concussion, it is hoped the Northampton man avoids any more serious incidents over the coming weeks. The Wales winger recently took some time out of the game after a concussion playing against Leicester Tigers in the Aviva Premiership. North is expected to line up outside Scarlets centre Scott Davies, who has been in impressive form for his region in Europe over recent weeks.
Former captain Sam Warburton has moved across the scrum to the blindside flank to allow in-form Justin Tipuric to fill the openside birth. The back-row forward is known for his footballing ability, a link between forwards and backs, and the Osprey could very well get himself on the scoresheet.
- Sports.net’s top tip: First Try Scorer – Justin Tipuric – 16/1
*Please note, odds may fluctuate.