Benetton Rugby will be hoping to build on last season’s encouraging Guinness PRO14 campaign as they head to Welsh side Dragons on Saturday.
What’s at stake
The Italian side won 11 of 21 fixtures last season, their best-ever record in the Championship, and a trip to Rodney Parade is where they start this year.
The Dragons meanwhile will be keen to put last season behind them after winning just two matches and picking up 20 points as they finished sixth in Conference B.
Nevertheless, a host of new signings will give plenty in Wales optimism that this season will provide different results.
Team news (Dragons)
Lewis Evans will make his 150th Guinness PRO14 appearance in the clash against Benetton, 12 years on from his Guinness PRO14 debut.
Meanwhile there’s six league debuts in Dragons colours to Jordan Williams, Dafydd Howells, Rhodri Williams, Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard and Brandon Nansen.
Fellow summer signings Josh Lewis and Huw Taylor are named among the replacements.
Team news (Benetton)
Benetton select Jayden Hayward at full-back, alongside wings Ratuva Tavuyara and Monty Ioane in the back-three. Tommaso Benvenuti and Alberto Sgarbi will be respectively outside and inside centre.
The half-backs are Tito Tebaldi at scrum-half and Tommaso Allan at fly-half. The front row will consist of Federico Zani, Hame Faiva and Tiziano Pasquali.
Alessandro Zanni and captain Dean Budd are at lock and back row sees Abraham Steyn, Sebastian Negri and Marco Barbini completing the XV chosen by Kieran Crowley.
Dragons coach Bernard Jackman said: “Everyone is excited about the opening day and we want to hit the ground running with a new-look team.
“We have a quality side out, but we know that Benetton Rugby are flying high on the back of a successful season last year.
“They were very impressive in pre-season against Leicester, Worcester and Zebre and they have shown they know how to win away from home, which Italian teams have failed to do in recent seasons.
“We’re under no illusions that it is going to be a tough game. They are very physical, very big up front so we need to deal with that. But we also need to impose our style of play that I am confident we will.”
Key battle – Hallam Amos v Monty Ioane
Two speedsters with plenty to offer at Rodney Parade as Hallam Amos goes toe-to-toe with Monty Ioane.
Amos, 23, has been a standout performer in his six years at the Dragons, making 15 offloads last campaign, more than any other player for the region.
Ioane was a standout winger for Benetton as they finished fifth in Conference B.
Tries were Ioane’s currency last campaign, crossing the whitewash eight times, and if he can replicate that form in Wales then it could be a winning start for Benetton.
Benetton have only tasted victory once in Wales in the last five years, a 18-15 win at the Dragons in February of this year.
Did you know?
The last time the Dragons opened their season with a victory came in 2013, against Ulster at Rodney Parade.
Dragons: Jordan Williams, Dafydd Howells, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos, Gavin Henson, Rhodri Williams; Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard, Leon Brown, Brandon Nansen, Cory Hill (C), Lewis Evans, Aaron Wainwright, Ollie Griffiths
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Brok Harris, Lloyd Fairbrother, Matthew Screech, Huw Taylor, Travis Knoyle, Josh Lewis, Adam Warren
Benetton: Jayden Hayward, Ratuva Tavuyara, Tommaso Benvenuti, Alberto Sgarbi, Monty Ioane, Tommaso Allan, Tito Tebaldi, Federico Zani, Hame Faiva, Tiziano Pasquali, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd (C), Abraham Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Marco Barbini
Replacements: Engjel Makelara, Derrick Appiah, Simone Ferrari, Marco Fuser, Federico Ruzza, Marco Lazzaroni, Giorgio Bronzini, Tommaso Iannone
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)
AR1: Frank Murphy (IRFU), AR2: Simon Rees (WRU)
TMO: Sean Brickell (WRU)
TV: Premier Sports, DAZN, EIR Sport18-
Benetton Rugby held on for a well-earned 21-17 win over the Dragons at Rodney Parade in what was just their second win in Wales in the last five years.
Tries either side of half-time from Alessandro Zanni, with another from Braam Steyn built solid foundations that the Dragons could not quite topple.
But the Welsh side tested their opponent’s nerves with a late Rhodri Williams try to take the deficit to four points, but it wasn’t to be for the Dragons.
It was a breathless start at Rodney Parade as the home side raced into an early lead after Dafydd Howells scored on debut, intercepting a wayward Benetton pass to score under the posts, with Gavin Henson adding the extra two points.
The Italian side responded almost immediately, however, as they made the most of a lineout in the corner to drive over, with experienced forward Zanni putting the finishing touches to the move, but Tommaso Allan could not convert.
The Dragons should have got their second when quick ball out wide saw them force an overlap, which was squandered after Jordan Williams couldn’t find Howells just yards out, and Benetton were spared.
Allan made amends for his earlier miss when he kicked a penalty conceded carelessly by the Dragons and doubled his tally minutes later with a second, putting his side 11-7 ahead in the closing minutes of the first half.
And the home team missed another gilt-edged chance on the stroke of half-time, a jinky Ollie Griffiths run brought them to the line, but they were held up and lost possession after recycling out wide.
With that, the whistle blew, and the Italians took a slender lead into the break, with the Dragons left to rue squandered opportunities.
Gavin Henson quickly reduced arrears to one, kicking from under the posts after Marco Barbini was penalised for reaching over the Dragons’ ruck.
But it was the men in green who replied in the 52nd minute with their second try, Braam Steyn putting the finishing touches to a powerful move for which a try was inevitable, yet Allan could not find the posts from a tight angle.
And they repeated the trick just minutes later, smart hands from Zanni gobbled up an errant offload and he tumbled over after a swift break, this time in the left corner.
Allan again missed a difficult kick, but Benetton’s lead was commanding without it: 21-10 as the game entered its final quarter.
The Treviso side then managed to do what neither had thus far: defend their lead, and they did so stoically.
Their line was unbroken despite the Dragons dominating possession, and it was impressive evidence of Benetton’s ability on both sides of the ball.
But the Welsh side suddenly found a spark of life, Jack Dixon offloading well to Rhodri Williams, who broke a tackle to dot down under the posts, allowing Josh Lewis an easy conversion.
Four points down with fewer minutes to salvage something, the Dragons suddenly had a revived crowd behind them.
But they could not fashion a winning chance, and Benetton emerged victorious.