By Brendan Cole
Wales have dominated the Six Nations over the last two years and bid for a historic third title in a row this time, while Italy have also enjoyed historic successes of their own over the same period.
The Azzuri downed Ireland and France last season, while Wales have only been beaten once and during 2012 and 2013, claiming a Grand Slam and Championship into the bargain.
It is worth noting that Italy’s major successes have come against sides going through down-cycles. Arguably, those same down-cycles have played a role in Wales’ golden era as well.
That is not to deny Wales credit for their success. Under Warren Gatland they have become an extremely potent outfit, combining an effective gameplan with superior quality in key positions – notably Adam Jones at tight-head and Mike Phillips at scrum-half – in a winning formula that the rest simply have not been able to match.
Italy have found it particularly difficult to land a blow with Wales’ clear gameplan, size advantage in the backline and security at the scrum making it difficult for them to knock Wales out of stride.
The Azzuri are trying to play a more expansive game than in the past, but they still need to disrupt and stymie in order to create a contest.
They will also struggle to be as effective as an attacking force with injuries to Andrea Masi, Gonzalo Canale and Andrea Giovanbattista Venditti denying them arguably their three most potent backline players.
On the plus side, Edoardo Gori has established himself as a good quality scrum-half in what had been a problem position, while Italy may also have unearthed a modern out-half in the former Scotland Under-20 Tommaso Allan.
Italy will, as ever, rely on the freakish ability of Sergio Parisse, their best playmaker, to turn unpromising situations into attacking opportunities.
The rest of the pack is comfortingly familiar with the 11-times capped loosehead Michele Rizzo the only name that will not be instantly familiar to Six Nations viewers. In fact, in what must be some kind of Six Nations record, every single player in the Italian pack is over 30, with an average age of 31-and-a-half.
There must a concern about their legs against a Welsh team that is practiced at keeping the ball alive whether by playing with ball in hand or through a good kick and chase game.
On the Welsh side, the first XV is missing a few key men in Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies. All three are due to come on stream, with Warburton starting on the bench and set to get game-time here.
This team is still more than capable of implementing the Gatland-gameplan. In fact, Rhys Priestland’s return should make for an even more effective backline, thanks to his fluent timing and the range and quality of his passing, with Jamie Roberts the most likely beneficiary.
Up front, Adam Jones should give Wales the platform they need at the scrum, a phase Wales dominated in this contest last year, while Toby Faletau and Richard Hibbard are capable of leading an effective ball-carrying effort.
There are few better than Phillips at turning a sniff of momentum into something more dangerous and against this ageing pack, the fringes are one area Wales are certain to test thoroughly.
In front of their home crowd, it is hard to see the Welsh doing anything but turning their dominance in a whole range of areas into points.
Six Nations prediction:
Wales 29-9 Italy
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones (c), 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Ryan Bevington, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Andrew Coombs, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 James Hook, 23 Liam Williams.
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Tommaso Iannone.
Referee: John Lacey.