Team news, stats and TV details for the Wales v Italy match in Cardiff that launches the 2020 Six Nations. There are plenty of new faces on show, both on the field and off it

Six Nations Wales v Italy preview

Wales and Italy, separated by the length of the table last year, share the honour of launching the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.

Both are under new head coaches, although with wildly different backdrops. While Wayne Pivac is following the hugely successful 12-year reign of Warren Gatland, Italy boss Franco Smith is trying to arrest the worst run by any team in the history of the championship.

Pivac had the benefit of an uncapped match against the Barbarians in November, but the serious stuff starts here. It’s the first step towards instilling a more consistently fluid and wider style of rugby, as illustrated so thrillingly at times by his former charges at the Scarlets over the past five years. It will not happen overnight.

For Smith, almost the opposite could be true because it’s likely he will introduce a touch more pragmatism as he tries to stop a Six Nations rot stretching back to 2015.

The match not only opens a new decade but represents the start of a new World Cup cycle. If you think this championship feels a mite less important than the one won by Wales a year ago, then you might care to reconsider.

The draw for the next World Cup, in France in 2023, takes place towards the end of this year and results now will affect the all-important seedings. Wales (fourth) and Italy (12th) presently occupy the last spot in bands one and three respectively, so a drop of even one place could land them a much more difficult challenge in 2023.

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What’s the big team news?

Pivac’s first Six Nations selection sees Johnny McNicholl, who played in the autumn friendly, win his first cap on the right wing. Teenager Louis Rees-Zammit, not long up and running after an ankle injury, must wait a while longer for his expected debut.

With Jonathan Davies and Willis Halaholo both unavailable with knee injuries, experienced wing George North moves inside to 13. That means Nick Tompkins misses out, although the Saracens centre will come off the bench to win his first cap.

Nick Tompkins of Saracens

Debut: Nick Tompkins of Saracens is due to win his first cap from off the replacements’ bench (Getty)

A hamstring injury rules out Josh Navidi out of the back-row reckoning, with Taulupe Faletau returning at No 8 two years after his last appearance.

We already knew that Liam Williams (ankle) was unavailable but Owen Watkin, Gareth Davies and Elliot Dee have also been declared not quite ready for selection, which means scrum-half Rhys Webb – named on the bench – is in line for his first cap since 2017.

Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Jake Ball and Aaron Wainwright are the only four starters this weekend who also started last year’s win in Rome.

Italy are in the same boat, with only Luca Morisi, Tommaso Allan, Sebastian Negri and Abraham Steyn starting on Saturday having also done so last year.

Wasps’ Matteo Minozzi, happily restored to fitness, is at full-back and Gloucester’s Jake Polledri plays at six, with legendary No 8 Sergio Parisse expected to appear later in the tournament for his swansong.

Michele Campagnaro’s injury has simplified selection in midfield where Smith has opted for a second playmaker in Carlo Canna. In Italy’s last match under Conor O’Shea, a 49-3 defeat to South Africa at Japan 2019, Jayden Hayward was deployed at 12 in a more physical midfield.

Prop Andrea Lovotti was sent off in that match for a tip tackle and he’ll be particularly glad to step out on Saturday so as to help put that aberration to bed.

What have the coaches said?

Wales boss Wayne Pivac: “I’m really happy with the side and really looking forward to this weekend. It’s great for Johnny McNicholl to get his first cap, I thought he played really well against the Barbarians, so it’s a great opportunity for him this weekend.

“George (North) has had a number of games in the midfield for Wales and more recently for the Ospreys and he has been running there in training. We’ve been impressed with him there and he’s excited by the opportunity.

“Nick (Tompkins) has trained really well and has impressed and we’re looking forward to seeing him at some stage during the game. He has settled in very quickly. You can see that he’s got a lot of experience, he’s played with a lot of quality players around him, so coming into the international environment for him has been a pretty simple adjustment.

“The whole team has a great vibe and we are looking forward to getting out there in front of our home supporters on Saturday.”

Related content: Want to stay active during the championship? Here’s a list of Six Nations Parkruns – 5km in length and totally free – that are held weekly close to the host stadiums.

Franco Smith and Luca Bigi

Figureheads: Italy head coach Franco Smith and captain Luca Bigi at the Six Nations launch (Inpho)

Italy boss Franco Smith: “I think Wales will bring a bit of an attacking edge. World rugby is leaning a bit more towards a ball-in-hand approach going into the 2023 World Cup. Definitely the style that Wayne’s played at the Scarlets will be noticeable in the new approach.

“We want to start a new campaign by first, following the new processes put in place and second, finding our DNA and playing to our strengths. That’s the first part of our objective.

“There’s been a lot of good work done in the Conor O’Shea era that we can bounce on. It’s important to find the perfect blend between managing the conditions and field domination, and the ball-in-hand, ‘one more try’ approach.”

Johnny McNicholl, Wales v Barbarians

Zing on the wing: Johnny McNicholl wins a first cap after shining against the Baa-Baas in November (Getty)

Any interesting statistics?

  • Victory would be Wales’ eighth in a row in the Six Nations – matching the best run by a Wales team in the pro era (2007-09)
  • Wales’ longest unbeaten run in the championship is nine games, set in the early 1970s
  • Italy are hoping to end a 22-match losing run in the championship – the worst sequence in championship history. There have been two World Cups played since their last Six Nations victory, against Scotland in February 2015
  • Italy have managed two wins and a draw against Wales in their 20 championship meetings, but the most recent of those successes was 13 years ago
  • Hooker Luca Bigi will captain Italy for the first time, Sergio Parisse and Dean Budd having shared the captain’s armband during the World Cup
  • Italy have scored double-digit points in their last ten games, their longest streak since doing so in each of their first 14 games in the championship
  • On the flip side, they haven’t restricted a team to 20 points or fewer in the Six Nations since their last win – that 22-19 defeat of Scotland in 2015
  • The Azzurri had only a 52% kicking success rate in the 2019 Six Nations, the worst percentage and way adrift of Wales’ table-topping 83%
  • Italy won 93.4% of their lineouts in last year’s Six Nations – best in the tournament
  • Leigh Halfpenny needs 12 points to reach 400 for the championship. He would be the seventh player to hit that milestone, and the third Welshman behind Stephen Jones (467) and Neil Jenkins (406)
  • Victory would give Alun Wyn Jones his 35th championship win – an outright Welsh record. He’s currently tied on 34 with Gethin Jenkins and JPR Williams

What time does it kick off and is it on TV?

Wales v Italy, Saturday 1 February, Principality Stadium.

The opening 2020 Six Nations game kicks off at 2.15pm in Cardiff and will be shown live on BBC1, BBC Wales and S4C, plus BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru and the BBC sport website.

England’s Luke Pearce, who took charge of Wales v Georgia in the World Cup last autumn, is the referee. He will be assisted by Matt Carley (England) and Mike Fraser (New Zealand), with Australia’s James Leckie the TMO.

Referee Luke Pearce

In charge: Luke Pearce during the RWC 2019 game between Wales and Georgia in Toyota (MB Media/Getty)

The Teams

WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; Johnny McNicholl, George North, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Rhys Webb, Jarrod Evans, Nick Tompkins.

ITALY: Matteo Minozzi; Leonardo Sarto, Luca Morisi, Carlo Canna, Mattia Bellini; Tommaso Allan, Callum Braley; Andrea Lovotti, Luca Bigi (capt), Giosué Zilocchi, Alessandro Zanni, Niccolò, Jake Polledri, Sebastian Negri, Abraham Steyn.

Replacements: 16 Federico Zani, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Marco Lazzaroni, 20 Dean Budd 21 Giovanni Licata 22 Guglielmo Palazzani 23 Jayden Hayward.

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