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6N: New leaders but same result tipped when Wales host Italy

CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Forget that high-scoring hit-out against the Barbarians in November. It all begins for real on Saturday for new Wales coach Wayne Pivac -- and he couldn’t have asked for a more benign-looking start to his tenure.

It’s Wales, the defending champion, against Italy, the team which almost always takes home the wooden spoon, in the first game of the 2020 Six Nations. Surely this can only go one way? The Welsh have never lost at home to the Azzurri, winning 13 of their meetings in Cardiff and drawing the other in 2006, and the gulf between them has rarely been bigger.

Just two months ago, Wales was within touching distance of a Rugby World Cup final, and not so long ago was the world’s top-ranked team. Italy, which is languishing in 12th place in the world ranking, won only three of its 12 matches in 2019 -- against Russia, Namibia and Canada.

Yet, for Wales, almost as intriguing as the result -- and few are expecting anything other than a comfortable victory at Principality Stadium -- is the performance and the approach Pivac takes to kick off his reign.

The Welsh under Pivac are expected to be more entertaining and off-the-cuff than under his predecessor, Warren Gatland, who masterminded three Grand Slams in the Six Nations and two World Cup semifinal appearances in his 12 years in charge through ruthless efficiency and solid defense.

Pivac has a tough act to follow but Wales lock Jake Ball, who worked under Pivac in the New Zealander’s five-year coaching stint at the Scarlets in Welsh club rugby, believes the coach will do just fine.

"Wayne is very clear on the way he wants to play in terms of pattern and player-wise," Ball says. "We want to play an exciting brand of rugby and it is going to be really interesting the next few weeks."

Pivac's support team also has a fresh feel about it, with former Wales internationals Stephen Jones (attack), Jonathan Humphreys (forwards), and Byron Hayward (defense) teaming up to orchestrate a Six Nations title defense.

There’s a new look to Italy, too, with former Springbok Franco Smith in temporary charge of the team following the abrupt resignation of Conor O’Shea after the World Cup. There’s no Sergio Parisse, the long-time No. 8, in the squad, either. Not yet anyway. Parisse is set to mark his retirement from international rugby with a final appearance for the Azzurri in the final round against England in Rome. Hooker Luca Bigi has the reins on the field.

Pivac has gone for George North at center, the uncapped Johnny McNicholl on the right wing, and uncapped Saracens center Nick Tompkins in the reserves. North, normally on the right wing, was at center for Jonathan Davies, who will miss the Six Nations after injuring his knee at the World Cup. North has four previous starts at center — the last in June 2018 — in his 94-cap career, and has moved there during more recent matches.

Treviso lock Niccolò Cannone has been given his debut, along clubmate Alessandro Zanni, who will be making his 118th appearance for the Azzurri. Uncapped Zebre prop Danilo Fischetti is in the reserves. Smith is also trying out dual playmakers, pairing Tommaso Allan with Carlo Canna at inside center.

Lineups:

Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, George North, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Wainwright, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Jake Ball, Dillon Lewis, Ken Owens, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Rhys Webb, Jarrod Evans, Nick Tompkins.

Italy: Matteo Minozzi, Leonardo Sarto, Luca Morsi, Carlo Canna, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Allan, Callum Braley; Braam Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Jake Polledri, Niccolò Cannone, Alessandro Zanni, Giosuè Zilochhi, Luca Bigi (captain), Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Federico Zani, Danilo Fischetti, Marco Riccioni, Dean Budd, Marco Lazzaroni, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Jayden Hayward.

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