Davies has been a lynchpin in the Scarlets back row this term, helping the Welsh region to second spot in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14, as well the European Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Gatland was not short of back-row options, with the likes of Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi and Ellis Jenkins all capable of playing at openside, but has opted for Davies.
The 27-year-old – younger brother of Scarlets, Wales and British & Irish Lions centre Jonathan Davies – helped his region to the PRO12 title last term and was also a part of the silver-medal winning Team GB rugby sevens side at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Last year, as the Scarlets stormed to their historic title, he finished with the most turnovers in the league, as well as making 243 tackles according to Opta, the fourth-highest tally of any player.
100 – Since his debut, James Davies has won exactly 💯 turnovers in the PRO14, 43 more than the next best player. King. 👑 pic.twitter.com/RMQcaFgYGY
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) November 30, 2017
Wales are currently fourth in the Six Nations table with one win from three games and coming off the back of a 37-27 defeat to Ireland in Dublin last time out, Gatland has made ten changes to his starting XV.
And he has backed Davies and the other incoming players to make a real impact against the Azzurri at Principality Stadium.
“We always talked about making changes for the Italian game and testing players in the squad,” explained the head coach. “We wanted to give some of the newer players an opportunity.
“Someone like James Davies gets a great chance but he gets a chance with some experience around him. We’ve made changes but we’ve got some quality players coming in.
“These players probably feel like there is an opportunity for them. It’s a challenging Championship but there were aspects of the Ireland game that we were disappointed with.
“The players realise there is a chance for them to put their hand up for selection against France [in the Six Nations finale].”
Guinness PRO14 fans already know what Davies brings to the table but pretty soon, the entirety of the Six Nations will as well.
TEAM NEWS 🏴 @taulupe returns to lead Wales against @Federugby. Croeso nol i’r wythwr profiadol Taulupe Faletau, sydd yn arwain Cymru dydd Sul: https://t.co/9Z0uPrdlFx #WALvITA pic.twitter.com/oZc2uOnSEv
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 7, 2018
He was something of a late bloomer, only making his Scarlets debut four years ago, but has emerged as one of the premier jackalers in Europe – showing an uncanny knack for hitting the correct breakdown to force a turnover.
Also an excellent link player, support runner and passer, Davies is solid defensively and demonstrates deceptive pace around the park.
And the flanker certainly has a nose for the try-line, notching 16 tries in his Scarlets career to date – including scores against the Dragons and Toyota Cheetahs in the Guinness PRO14 this term.
You wouldn’t bet against him marking his international debut in similar fashion this weekend.
WALES TEAM TO PLAY ITALY
15. Liam Williams (Saracens) (46 Caps)
14. George North (Northampton Saints) (71 Caps)
13. Owen Watkin (Ospreys) (3 Caps)
12. Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets) (4 Caps)
11. Steff Evans (Scarlets) (8 Caps)
10. Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues) (14 Caps)
9. Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (30 Caps)
1. Nicky Smith (Ospreys) (16 Caps)
2. Elliot Dee (Dragons) (5 Caps)
3. Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (29 Caps)
4. Cory Hill (Dragons) (13 Caps)
5. Bradley Davies (Ospreys) (60 Caps)
6. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (55 Caps)
7. James Davies (Scarlets) (Uncapped)
8. Taulupe Faletau (Bath) (70 Caps) (CAPT)
16. Ken Owens (Scarlets) (55 Caps)
17. Rob Evans (Scarlets) (23 Caps)
18. Samson Lee (Scarlets) (37 Caps)
19. Seb Davies (Cardiff Blues) (3 Caps)
20. Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff Blues) (5 Caps)
21. Aled Davies (Scarlets) (7 Caps)
22. Rhys Patchell (Scarlets) (7 Caps)
23. Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets) (76 Caps)
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie