6N: Wales keen to mark Biggar and AWJ milestones with win

CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Wales got the party started early.

Coach Wayne Pivac named his side on Tuesday, two days before every other team, and set up a couple of individual milestones to close their Six Nations campaign at home on Saturday.

A second straight championship title is long out of reach but Wales can finish on a high with a 17th successive win over Italy and suitably celebrate Dan Biggar’s 100th Wales test and the man he succeeded as captain, Alun Wyn Jones, who will appear in his 150th.

Jones is coming back from double surgery on his left shoulder and hasn’t played in 20 weeks, but Pivac is confident the great lock is ready, and the players agree.

“I’ve been trying to run away from him to be honest,” prop Dillon Lewis quipped. “He’s been like a steam train running around the field.”

Biggar said he was going to have a coffee with Jones to decide which one of them was going to lead the team first out of the tunnel. Thanks to Pivac’s early selection, a good crowd should greet them.

There were nearly 11,000 empty seats out of 74,000 last week when unbeaten France came to Principality Stadium. As many were expected to be empty again at the start of this week for Italy’s visit. The Welsh Rugby Union has blamed it on the lag in lifting crowd restrictions in the pandemic. But Pivac’s generosity to unveil the Biggar and Jones show so early in the week could only have helped ticket sales. He’s denied any talks with the WRU marketing department.

What Wales shouldn’t need help with is beating Italy. On experience alone, Biggar has more caps than the entire Italy backline, and Jones has more caps than all of the Italy pack.

The Azzurri have lost 36 straight matches in the Six Nations since 2015, haven’t won a point in the standings since 2018, and own the wooden spoon for a seventh straight year.

Wales was thought to be vulnerable this year with eight British Lions unavailable at the start, but the team was competitive and improved. Pivac was happy.

“At the start of the competition we had probably written it off due to the absentees,” he said. “But we’ve grown throughout the competition, which has been really, really pleasing. I don’t think we are too far off, and with some other players to come back into the mix for the summer tour (to South Africa), we are in a reasonable space.

“It’s a step in the right direction in terms of the experiences some players have got, not only in terms of starting positions and on the bench, but also in leadership roles. We are building depth in a number of areas, which is really important going through to the World Cup next year.”

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Lineups:

Wales: Johnny McNicholl, Louis Rees-Zammit, Owen Watkin, Uilisi Halaholo, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar (captain), Gareth Davies; Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, Seb Davies, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Beard, Dillon Lewis, Dewi Lake, Gareth Thomas. Reserves: Bradley Roberts, Wyn Jones, Leon Brown, Will Rowlands, Ross Moriarty, Kieran Hardy, Callum Sheedy, Nick Tompkins.

Italy: Ange Capuozzo, Edoardo Padovani, Juan Ignacio Brex, Leonardo Marin, Montanna Ioane, Paolo Garbisi, Callum Braley; Toa Halafihi, Michele Lamaro (captain), Giovanni Pettinelli, Federico Ruzza, Marco Fuser, Pietro Ceccarelli, Giacomo Nicotera, Danilo Fischetti. Reserves: Luca Bigi, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, David Sisi, Niccolo Cannone, Braam Steyn, Alessandro Fusco, Marco Zanon.

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