Wales coach Warren Gatland has made six changes to his starting line-up for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against fellow strugglers Italy in Rome.
Veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones, the world’s most-capped international, experienced full-back Leigh Halfpenny and wing Louis Rees-Zammit are among those dropped.
The other changes to the starting XV beaten 20-10 by England in Cardiff last time out see scrum-half Rhys Webb recalled instead of Tomos Williams for his first Six Nations start in six years, with flanker Jac Morgan and loosehead prop Wyn Jones also recalled.
Both Italy and Wales have yet to win in this Six Nations and Saturday’s match could end up deciding the recipient of the wooden spoon — something Wales last collected back in 2003.
Wyn Jones was left out of the 23 completely, with 22-year-old lock Rhys Davies on the bench.
Fly-half Dan Biggar was also missing from the matchday squad due to a back injury.
The Welsh have lost three successive matches since Gatland returned for a second spell as coach.
Prior to that, Gatland’s Wales predecessor and fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac managed a mere three wins from his last 12 Tests.
Italy, who named their team earlier Thursday, ended a woeful run of 36 consecutive Six Nations defeats with a 22-21 win over Wales in Cardiff last year.
Wales have just five fixtures left before the World Cup and Gatland’s team selection suggests he is looking to develop combinations ahead of the September start of the showpiece tournament in France.
“We feel that having watched Italy and how they’ll tend to play from everywhere, including their own 22, getting guys on the ball is going to be pretty important,” said Gatland.
“Rhys Webb gets an opportunity at nine (scrum-half) having been training well.
“Liam Williams comes in (for Halfpenny) at full-back. We did discuss whether we put Louis Rees-Zammit to full-back.
“But he still hasn’t played a lot of rugby in terms of coming back from a relatively long injury with his ankle and we just felt with the way the game’s going to be and the pace of the game, that him coming off the bench and the impact he can have could be pretty important.”
– ‘Disappointed’ –
Wales have been beset by off-field problems this season, with a threatened players’ strike only called off just days before the England game.
Gatland added: “We’ve been disappointed with the results so far and for me it’s hard to take as it’s the first time I’ve lost three games in the Six Nations with Wales.
“We’ve had a lot of things going on off the field as well but there are no excuses.
“The message to the players has been that we have to be smart in terms of the way we play but we’ve also got to be brave…We have to keep scanning and looking at options and if there’s a chance to move the ball then be brave and do that.”
Liam Williams; Josh Adams, Mason Grady, Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer; Owen Williams, Rhys Webb; Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Jac Morgan; Dafydd Jenkins, Adam Beard; Tomas Francis, Ken Owens (capt), Wyn Jones
Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Gareth Thomas, Dillon Lewis, Rhys Davies, Tommy Reffell, Tomos Williams, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit
Coach: Warren Gatland (NZL)