George North will play at centre and Johnny McNicholl makes his Wales debut against Italy on Saturday but Josh Navidi will miss the start of the Six Nations due to injury.

North switches to partner Hadleigh Parkes for his fifth start in midfield at international level, with uncapped wing McNicholl coming in for the defending champions' first match of the tournament under head coach Wayne Pivac.

Flanker Navidi looks set to miss the majority of the competition after suffering a hamstring injury.

Fit-again back-row Taulupe Faletau returns for his first international appearance since March 2018, while uncapped centre Nick Tompkins could make his debut off the bench.

Tomos Williams and Dan Biggar made up the half-back pairing at the Principality Stadium, where Josh Adams and Leigh Halfpenny join McNicholl in the back three.

There is no place in the matchday squad for teen flyer Louis Rees-Zammit.

 

Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, George North, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Rhys Webb, Jarrod Evans, Nick Tompkins.

Wales full-back Liam Williams will miss the first game of the Six Nations against Italy but uncapped teenager Louis Rees-Zammit is expected to be fit.

Williams has not played since sustaining an ankle injury during the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall expected the Scarlets-bound British and Irish Lion to return against the Azzurri on February 1.

New Wales head coach Wayne Pivac says Williams will not feature at the Principality Stadium, but hopes he will make his comeback in a blockbuster clash against Ireland in Dublin a week later. 

"Liam is on for round two of the competition, he won't make the first game." said Pivac.

Pivac had more positive news of 18-year-old wing Rees-Zammit, who limped out of Gloucester's European Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse last Sunday with an ankle knock but could make his debut when Wales start the defence of their title.

"Louis picked up a bit of a bump last week, he's worked well with the medical team and he'll hopefully be training this morning, doing some running with the boys," Pivac said at the Six Nations launch on Wednesday.

"He'll go back to his club this weekend and then we'll get him back next week."

Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones says the 2019 Grand Slam winners will need time to adjust in a new era under Pivac, who replaced the long-serving Warren Gatland after the World Cup.

The lock said: "It is going to be a bumpy road and we cannot shy away from that. There has been a lot of change and, to a point, we have to cut ties with that.

"But if you continue to look over your shoulder, you will slow yourself down. If we are going to evolve, there are a few more things to adapt to, and that is what you want to do.

"I was asked earlier about desire, and why you keep going, and I just remember why I started. I want to play rugby and I want to be involved with Wales.

"It is Wayne's world now and I am looking forward to what is to come."

In-demand Wales wing Steff Evans has ended speculation over his future by signing a new deal with the Scarlets.

The 25-year-old flyer attracted interest from France as he neared the end of his contract.

Evans has decided to remain with his home region ahead of the Six Nations, with no mention from the Scarlets of the length of his new deal.

Capped 13 times by the Six Nations champions, Evans said: "I am loving my rugby here at the moment so it was an easy decision to stay with the Scarlets.

"The coaches have built a great environment that all the players are buying into and there's a real buzz about the place at the moment.

"This is my home region, I grew up watching the Scarlets and to have made more than 100 appearances is an achievement I am hugely proud of.

"The squad here is as strong as it has been since I have been here and I really feel there are exciting times ahead.

"The boys have been playing some great rugby this season, we are still alive in two competitions and I am looking forward to playing my part in what should be an exciting few months to come."

Wales centre Jamie Roberts has left Bath to sign with South African Super Rugby franchise the Stormers.

British and Irish Lion Roberts, who joined Bath from Harlequins in 2018, moves to Cape Town with immediate effect after the Stormers received the financial support of a corporate partner.

The 33-year-old earned the last of his 94 Wales caps in November 2017 and will also act as a mentor for his new team.

"It has long been a goal of mine to play in the Southern Hemisphere and I cannot think of a better place to do so than in the Western Cape, where people are so passionate about their rugby and also staying in Cape Town which is such an amazing city," said Roberts.

"While I am looking forward to wearing the shirt, my key drive is to perform on the pitch, win week in week out and to help to drive success.

"Having toured South Africa with my school, sevens, club and Wales, then playing in the 2009 British and Irish Lions series as a young player which was a highlight in my career, to spend some time down here and contribute to the fantastic rugby culture will be a special privilege.

"Every time I have been to South Africa, it has always struck me as a beautiful country with rugby at its heart, which reminds me very much of home. It feels very special to be able to come and play rugby in South Africa.

"While I am looking forward to pulling the Stormers jersey on, this will also be a fantastic opportunity for me to help impart some knowledge and insight on the many talented youngsters that we have here."

The Stormers finished bottom of the South Africa Conference last season and begin their 2020 campaign at home to the Hurricanes on February 1.

Bath have replaced Roberts by signing Fiji international and utility back Josh Matavesi from Newcastle Falcons.

Teenage wing Louis Rees-Zammit is among five uncapped players in new Wales head coach Wayne Pivac's squad for the Six Nations.

Rees-Zammit has earned rave reviews following his performances for Gloucester and the 18-year-old flyer is set to be unleashed on the international stage.

Prop WillGriff John, second-row Will Rowlands, centre Nick Tompkins and versatile New Zealand-born back Johnny McNicholl will also be hoping to win their first caps for the defending champions.

Lock Seb Davies and wing Jonah Holmes are among the 38 included by Pivac along with fit-again back-row Taulupe Faletau and scrum-half Rhys Webb, who is set to re-join the Ospreys from Toulon.

"We are really excited to be naming our Six Nations squad and kicking the campaign off," said Pivac.

"A lot of time and effort has gone into selecting the squad, all of the coaches have been out and about, seeing players in training, speaking with them and we are pretty excited with the group we have got.

"Looking back to the Barbarians week, that was hugely important for us. We got a lot of 'firsts' out of the way, getting to meet and get in front of the players and having a game together was hugely beneficial.

"We do have a couple of injuries but we flip that into seeing it as an opportunity for some new players to impress, with not only the Six Nations in mind but also longer term and 2023."

 

Wales squad in full:

Forwards: Rhys Carre, Rob Evans, Wyn Jones, Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Ken Owens, Leon Brown, WillGriff John, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Seb Davies, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Will Rowlands, Cory Hill, Aaron Shingler, Aaron Wainwright, Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric.

Backs: Gareth Davies, Rhys Webb, Tomos Williams, Dan Biggar, Owen Williams, Jarrod Evans, Hadleigh Parkes, Nick Tompkins, Owen Watkin, George North, Josh Adams, Owen Lane, Johnny McNicholl, Louis Rees-Zammit, Jonah Holmes, Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams.

George North opened the scoring for Ospreys on his return from injury on Saturday, but a dramatic finish saw Dragons come out on top in their Pro14 derby clash.

Wales wing North had been out of action since rupturing his hamstring in the Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat to South Africa in October.

He was fit to start and play 79 minutes for struggling Ospreys, yet his eventual departure came amid a thrilling stretch in which Dragons claimed a 25-18 victory.

North dotted down after 19 minutes following Scott Williams' kick and, although Leon Brown responded in style, Ospreys were in control again as Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler scored in the second half.

They remained in front until the 74th minute, but Rio Dyer's try brought Dragons back into the match, and Adam Warren went over with two minutes remaining to settle it.

Defeat leaves Ospreys still bottom of Conference A with just one win in 10 matches.

Fellow strugglers Zebre found some form at home to Cheetahs.

Charlie Walker scored a pair of tries in a 41-13 success, just Zebre's second of the campaign.

At the other end of the table, Leinster equalled their best ever start to a season with a 10th straight win, defeating Connacht 54-7.

Max Deegan and Garry Ringrose each scored twice, with the table-topping Irish province crossing eight times in all in another dominant victory.

Elsewhere, George Horne went over twice and brother Pete also got on the scoresheet as Glasgow Warriors ran in six tries to claim a 38-19 bonus-point win at Benetton.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh took full advantage of Pieter Scholtz's early dismissal to rout Southern Kings 61-13.

Scholtz saw red for contact to the neck in the 13th minute, and Edinburgh, who trailed at that point, scored the first of their nine tries a minute later in a handsome victory.

Liam Williams' much-anticipated return from Saracens to the Scarlets has been confirmed by the Pro14 side.

Wales full-back Williams, who is still recovering from an injury sustained during the Rugby World Cup, left the Scarlets to join Saracens in 2017.

The 28-year-old has subsequently helped Sarries to two successive Premiership titles, along with a European Champions Cup triumph last season.

However, Williams – who on Saturday appeared to confirm the move on his official Twitter account – will return to the Pro14 with his former club after his contract at Saracens expires at the end of the season.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed my time at Saracens over the past three seasons," Williams said.

"The environment has undoubtedly developed me as a player and a person. I am grateful for the support I've had from the players, management and supporters during this time."

Before Williams leaves Saracens, he will be tasked with attempting to help the champions retain their Premiership status.

Saracens are 17 points adrift at the foot of the table, having been fined £5.36million and deducted 35 points for breaching salary cap rules.

Wales manager Ryan Giggs says Gareth Bale remains in love with football and is more than capable of handling the criticism he has received in recent months.

Bale has been through a somewhat tumultuous time at Real Madrid, with questions over his commitment to the club arising amid form and fitness issues.

He courted controversy last month when he posed with a flag that read: "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order," following his country's victory over Hungary that sealed a place at Euro 2020.

However, Giggs believes Bale's vast experience means he can easily deal with any negativity.

"It's all noise that you can't control and it's about blocking out that noise. If you don't hear it then it's not going to affect you," Giggs told Sky Sports News.

"Gareth is at one of the biggest clubs in the world, he's won four Champions Leagues, he's been through everything so he can handle it [the criticism].

"A lot of people have sort of questioned his love for the game. He still loves the game and he loves playing it.

"He loves winning, he loves scoring goals, he loves making goals. It's not a problem to Gareth with the experience he's got."

Liam Williams has seemingly confirmed reports he has agreed to leave Saracens and rejoin Scarlets at the end of the season.

Wales full-back Williams – who is recovering from an ankle injury suffered during the Rugby World Cup – joined Saracens in 2017.

The 28-year-old's contract is due to expire at the end of the 2019-20 campaign and reports on Friday claimed he was set to move back to Scarlets.

Though the impending switch has not been officially confirmed, Williams replied to a tweet questioning why he had opted to rejoin his former side and leave the reigning Premiership and European champions.

He wrote: "Because home is home."

Williams would be the first high-profile departure from Saracens since they were fined £5.36million and deducted 35 points for breaching salary cap rules.

Wales centre Owen Watkin is set to miss part of the Six Nations at least after undergoing surgery on a torn knee cartilage.

Watkin, who featured in six of his country's seven games at the recent Rugby World Cup, was hurt in the Ospreys' home Champions Cup defeat to Racing 92 on December 7.

In a statement on Saturday, his club confirmed he is set to be out of action for up to eight weeks.

As such, he is on course to miss Wales' opening Six Nations fixtures against Italy and Ireland, on February 1 and 8 respectively, while he may also struggle to be ready for the clash with France on February 22.

The Ospreys also provided an update on Gareth Anscombe, who missed the World Cup after suffering a serious knee injury in a warm-up match against England in August.

"Gareth has undergone a second procedure to his right knee this week," read a statement.

"As a result of Gareth's progress plateauing in the last month, and in conjunction with Gareth and his specialist, it was decided that a secondary minor procedure would be in his best interest, with the aim to allow him to progress and accelerate his rehabilitation in the new year.

"Surgery went well and at this stage we're ruling nothing out with regard to a possible return towards the end of the season.

"However, we'll be in a better position to clarify a realistic prognosis in the new year when he goes back to see the specialist."

Former Wales assistant coach Rob Howley has apologised and opened up on his battle with "demons" after being banned for making 363 bets on rugby over a four-year spell.

On Monday he was handed an 18-month ban for breaching World Rugby's anti-corruption and betting regulations.

The sanction, nine months of which is suspended for two years, followed a three-month investigation by an independent disciplinary panel.

It was discovered that Howley's bets had spanned dates between November 2015 and September 2019, some of which were on Wales games during his time with the team.

Howley has issued a full apology, insisting his sister Karen's death in 2011 had left him in a difficult place.

"I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to all those close to me and everyone this has affected, especially the rugby community, close colleagues and above all my family," Howley said in a widely reported statement on Tuesday.

"I am an extremely private man, and unfortunately it was this that kept me silent as I battled my demons following my sister's tragic death.

"The last few months have been immensely tough, and continued help will allow me to find the right path back to rugby which has always been my true passion. 

"I am immensely grateful for the faith and support I've received from everybody close to me."

Backs coach Howley was withdrawn from Wales duty when the WRU learned of a potential breach in the build-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The ban has consequently been backdated to September 16, meaning he will be eligible to return to the sport on June 16, 2020.

Howley wished to make it clear that his good character had been recognised during an investigation which he fully co-operated with.

The 49-year-old added: "I feel it is important for me to reiterate a number of the key facts that were highlighted and proven during the investigation:

"'Mr Howley acknowledged his breach of the regulation at the first available opportunity, that he has demonstrated deep felt and genuine remorse, that he has an exemplary character and an exemplary disciplinary record (both as a player and coach).

"'There was no suggestion of dishonesty or misuse of confidential information involved.

"'The fact that Mr Howley had sought help from a psychologist who had diagnosed that the trigger for Mr Howley's recreational betting had been a family tragedy and that Mr Howley had refrained from betting since his suspension'."

Former Wales assistant coach Rob Howley has been handed an 18-month ban for breaching World Rugby's anti-corruption and betting regulations.

The sanction, nine months of which is suspended for two years, was announced by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) on Monday following a three-month investigation.

Howley was withdrawn from Wales duty when the WRU learned of a potential breach in the build-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The ban has consequently been backdated to September 16, meaning he will be eligible to return to the sport on June 16, 2020.

An independent disciplinary panel found that Howley placed 363 bets between November 2015 and September 2019, some of which were on Wales games during his time with the team.

Howley used a mobile phone and email address supplied by the WRU to place bets that resulted in losses of approximately £4,000.

During a hearing in Cardiff last week, Howley stated he had not gambled since being stood down and was seeing a psychologist to stop betting.

The 49-year-old can lodge an appeal but must notify the WRU within 14 days of his receipt of the decision.

Warren Gatland believes the knee injury that deprived Wales of Gareth Anscombe was a decisive factor in the country's Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat to South Africa.

Gatland saw a glittering career as Wales coach end in disappointment as they again fell short of World Cup glory in 2019.

Having overseen defeats in the semi-finals in 2011 and quarter-finals in 2015, Gatland guided his side to the last four in Japan, only for them to suffer an agonising 19-16 loss to the Springboks.

Anscombe sustained an anterior cruciate ligament injury in Wales' warm-up game with England, and the fly-half's absence was keenly felt by Gatland as they were denied by the eventual champions.

"We gave it everything in that semi-final against South Africa and at 16-16 with 10 minutes to go we were in control of the ball, the momentum had swung our way, I thought we were going to win and get ourselves into a World Cup final," Gatland told WalesOnline.

"It wasn't to be but that's just rugby, it's sport. I was gutted.

"That was the first time that I felt we really missed a player and that was Gareth Anscombe. He was a big loss for us.

"I've loved my time in Wales. The people have been amazing."

Enormous applause around the stadium as Warren Gatland signs off from Wales duty. What a twelve years it's been. #DiolchWarren pic.twitter.com/7z4swrAGw1

— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) November 1, 2019

"Rhys Patchell did really well for us in a World Cup and Dan [Biggar] was excellent.

"But I just felt that the balance we had with Anscombe and Biggar beforehand, they complemented each other really well. They're different types of players and you're able to use them differently and use your strengths differently.

"It was the first time in my entire coaching career I felt that the loss of one player had a real effect.

"If you lose someone like [Taulupe] Faletau – and we know how good he is – we've got other players who are able to fill the space.

"A fit Faletau at his best would have been significant but there are other quality loose forwards there, so I felt like we could manage that.

"Anscombe is someone that we missed."

The former Real Madrid star whose words inspired the infamous "WALES. GOLF. MADRID" flag hopes criticism of Gareth Bale has come to an end.

Predrag Mijatovic, scorer of 44 goals for Madrid in the late 1990s, fuelled negative fan opinion against the 30-year-old winger when he questioned Bale's priorities in an October interview.

"[The perception is] the first thing he thinks about is Wales, then golf and after that, Real Madrid," Mijatovic, 50, was quoted as telling radio station Cadena SER.

Wales fans adapted the comments into a light-hearted chant and later a banner, which Bale posed behind following last month's triumph over Hungary.

The former Tottenham star was celebrating qualification for Euro 2020 but several Spanish media outlets perceived his actions to be a slight against Madrid.

He was met with jeers every time he touched the ball on his next appearance at the Santiago Bernabeu, a 3-1 LaLiga win against Real Sociedad.

"My intention was not this, I have already said that Bale has great qualities as a footballer and I have always liked him," Mijatovic told AS TV.

"It is true that he makes mistakes on some occasions and we have to comment on him as former players and former directors, but I don't want any more controversies, nor the flag to play a leading role.

"What I want is for Madrid to play well and win all the possible titles. I'd rather not say anything else [about Bale] because we're going to bring it all up again.

"The most important thing is that Bale is back, he's playing and that's what we all want."

Mijatovic spent three seasons with Madrid during his playing career, notably scoring the goal that secured victory against Juventus in the 1998 Champions League final.

He served as the club's sporting director from 2006 to 2009.

Roberto Mancini has warned Italy not to underestimate the less glamorous teams joining them in Group A at Euro 2020.

The Azzurri will face Turkey, Switzerland and Wales next June after receiving a relatively kind draw.

Mancini's men will be expected to reach the knockout rounds after maintaining a perfect record through qualifying, the only nation alongside Belgium to accomplish this feat.

But in 2016 semi-finalists Wales, a talented Turkey team and a Switzerland side boasting the best FIFA ranking of the four, Mancini found hidden demons.

"I don't think the group will be as simple as some are saying," the former Inter head coach told Radio Anch'io.

"They are annoying teams with nothing to lose. They all have good players and a lot of young players.

"Switzerland know us well and are always annoying to face, Wales can be a surprise with players in the Premier League and Turkey took four points from France in their qualifying group.

"These are teams that are difficult to deal with, but we are optimistic."

Euro 2020 will mark Italy's first appearance at a major tournament in four years, following the shock failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Mancini confirmed the squad he intends to take is already largely settled.

He said: "I believe the group is now outlined, but obviously if an extraordinary young man, a Paolo Rossi or [Salvatore] Schillaci, were to emerge in the next six months, we would be very pleased."

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