Competition Clashes: Wales battle for number nine and the Italian back three

Paul Eddison
28 August 2019

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The clock is ticking ahead of the World Cup with just over three weeks until the opening game between Japan and Russia in Chofu.

For Wales preparation has meant a gruelling nine days in Turkey getting their players ready for the unfamiliar climate that they will face in Japan.

After splitting their two encounters with England, they play host to Ireland on Saturday, and one of the most intriguing battles will be at scrum-half where Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams are battling for the starting role.

The Scarlets scrum-half has the most experience as well as a remarkable try-scoring record for a No.9.

Any scrum-half with double figures worth of tries in a single season (as he did in 2013/14) becomes a problem all of his own for the opposition defence coach, with Davies grabbing five tries in the Guinness PRO14 last term.

Williams, meanwhile, has emerged as a brilliant support runner over the last couple of seasons with Cardiff Blues, also chipping in with a trio of tries and four try assists in John Mulvihill’s first campaign at the helm.

Davies has the edge in terms of defenders beaten, 29 to 19 last year, while there is also the wild card option of Aled Davies, now at the Ospreys after joining from the Scarlets, who has proven to be a gamebreaker off the bench for club and country.

Each of the three offers slightly differing skillsets, giving Warren Gatland the perfect collection of options depending on the game plan he wishes to employ.

Italy back three

Italy face the daunting challenge of both New Zealand and South Africa in their pool in Japan, as well as Namibia and Canada, with Conor O’Shea having named his final 31-man squad for the Azzurri last week.

That means that Friday’s clash with France and the trip to England a week later will serve as an opportunity to make the final calls on his first-choice XV.

There are intriguing decisions to be taken all over the pitch, but perhaps none more so than in the back three.

If fit-again Matteo Minozzi seems a shoe-in to start, either on the wing or at full-back, the other members of that trio are less certain.

Mattia Bellini has been a standout for Zebre for two seasons now and will fancy his chances of earning a spot, which could mean that it is a straight shoot-out between Jayden Hayward and Edoardo Padovani for the last starting role – albeit with Tommaso Benvenuti and Giulio Bisegni also in contention as versatile options.

Hayward is an out-and-out full-back who enjoyed perhaps his best year since arriving at Benetton and on the international stage.

Solid under the high ball and a deceptive counter-attacker, he is a valuable option in this era of increased attacking kicking.

He is also an underrated offloader of the ball, with 15 last season in the Guinness PRO14 for Benetton, who also had wingers Monty Ioane and Ratuva Tavuyara in the top three for offloads.

Padovani, meanwhile, is a little more versatile with his ability to slot in on the wing or at full-back, and he enjoyed a fine campaign for Zebre.

His 815 metres made were the 14th most in the competition, and the most of any Zebre player, while he contributed 16 clean breaks over the course of the season, again leading the way for his team.

Add in three tries during the Guinness Six Nations, and there is clearly potential to break a game open.

It is a nice dilemma for O’Shea to have, particularly with the return to fitness of the fleet-footed Minozzi after a year on the sidelines.

If the Azzurri can click, it may well be thanks to the threat posed by their back three.

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