By STEVE DOUGLAS
2014-01-30 10:42 PM
After capturing two straight Six Nations titles, Wales needs to do more than just win games in this year's tournament to satisfy the demands of coach Warren Gatland.
Starting with Saturday's curtain-raiser against Italy, Gatland has challenged his players to put on a show at the Millennium Stadium.
"We have to go out in our first game and express ourselves like champions," Wales center Jamie Roberts said. "Warren has spoken about having a little bit of a strut in our stride and really being quite confident.
"We can't go into our shells on the pitch -- we have to go out and walk the walk."
And if there's any fixture in the Six Nations in which Wales should be free to cut loose and entertain its rugby-loving public, Italy at home is surely the one.
Wales has never lost at home to the Italians, winning eight of their nine meetings in the principality and drawing the other. The Welsh have won the last three matches at the Millennium Stadium by a combined total of 83 points.
They may have been shown up once again by the southern hemisphere powers during the autumn internationals, losing to South Africa and Australia, but they are the undoubted kings of Europe and are looking to achieve something that's never been done in the Five or Six Nations -- winning three successive titles outright.
Boosting Wales' chances is the fact that Gatland has a virtually injury-free squad from which to choose. Aside from lock Ian Evans, who is suspended for the whole tournament for stamping in a club match, the only key players missing are center Jonathan Davies and prop Gethin Jenkins.
Davies could return from an abdomen problem in the match against Ireland in Round Two.
With Sam Warburton only on the bench after recently recovering from a shoulder problem, lock Alun-Wyn Jones will captain Wales.
Italy isn't the pushover it used to be in the Six Nations, proving that last year by opening up with a 23-18 win over France before finishing up by beating Ireland 22-15.
However, since the 2013 tournament, the Azzurri has lost five out of six matches -- against South Africa, Samoa and Scotland in a quadrangular event in the summer and then against Australia and Argentina in November.
"We need to consider those (five defeats) part of our learning curve toward the World Cup," Italy back-rower Paul Derbyshire said. "While we need to start over with this tournament, those incidents along the way can serve to help us mature.
"Starting in Cardiff is a very tough opener, against one of the big favorites for title."
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts, George North, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips, Paul James, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau. Reserves: Ken Owens, Ryan Bevington, Rhodri Jones, Andrew Coombs, Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb, James Hook, Liam Williams.
Italy: Luke McLean, Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Alberto Sgarbi, Leonardo Sarto, Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori, Sergio Parisse (captain), Mauro Bergamasco, Alessandro Zanni, Marco Bortolami, Quintin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Michele Rizzo. Reserves: Davide Giazzon, Alberto De Marchi, Lorenzo Cittadini, Joshua Furno, Francesco Minto, Tobias Botes, Luciano Orquera, Tommaso Iannone.