DRAGONS V ZEBRE (Tonight, KO 7pm)
NEWPORT Gwent Dragons may be without a few key figures but Zebre’s list of notable absentees has ramped up the pressure on tonight’s hosts to secure victory.
The Dragons start their RaboDirect Pro12 campaign against the new Italian franchise at Rodney Parade this evening.
They will do so without opensides Lewis Evans and Darren Waters, lock Robert Sidoli, scrum-half Joe Bed-ford, centre Adam Hughes and wing Tonderai Chav-hanga, who are all sidelined by injury.
However, Zebre have headed to Wales without lock Marco Bortolami, flanker Mauro Bergamasco, centre Matteo Pratichetti and back row forward Josh Sole – a quartet with a combined tally of 249 Italy caps.
They do still possess some real talent in their ranks, notably a dangerous back three of Sinoti Sinoti, Sam Pace and Giovanbattista Venditti, but they have been put at 11/4 by the bookies for a reason.
Zebre pretty much boast the same squad as the now defunct Aironi, who won just four times last season… with each success on their own patch.
That’s not to say they should be dismissed.
It took a last-minute penalty try for the Dragons to win 10-9 in Italy while the 23-14 success at Rodney Parade was hardly a thing of beauty.
Nonetheless, Darren Edwards’ side should boss matters tonight and the head coach will be looking for a strong scrummaging performance after giving the nod to loosehead Phil Price and tighthead Dan Way.
The pair both saw rivals Nathan Williams and Nathan Buck winning the battle for jerseys one and three last season but have made an impression on new set piece tsar Iestyn Thomas.
“The good thing is that everybody has started afresh with Iestyn and they have new challenges,” said Edwards.
“He was particularly impressed by the way that Dan scrummaged in the pre-season game against London Irish so he gets the start.
“It was a tough call but we had plenty of those. We might have reduced our squad but we have had hard selection issues because these boys are all shooting it out with each other for starts.”
Edwards hands the number 10 jersey to Steffan Jones on the back of a mature display against Irish and he will have Andy Tuilagi on his outside shoulder.
The Samoan, who has benefited from a hard pre-season, is paired with Pat Leach in a hard-running midfield.
“Andy has been nowhere near his potential for us and his performance against London Irish was a good base line for him, there is more to come from him,” said Edwards.
“It was nice to see him fit, wanting the ball and keen to make a difference. He is on the right path and I am excited by pairing him with Pat.
“Pat has been one of our best performers in pre-season and the two of them should make it an imposing midfield.
“We have some mouthwatering potential combinations with the subtleties of Adam Hughes on the outside break, playmaking skills of Ashley Smith and the bright talent of Jack Dixon.”
With Lewis Evans unable to lead out the side for the first time the captaincy goes to veteran hooker Steve Jones and the number seven jersey will be worn by Jevon Groves, who is usually a blindside flanker.
Andrew Coombs’ pre-season form in the previously unfamiliar role of lock means that he gets the chance to develop his burgeoning partnership with debutant Ian Nimmo.
Full-back Dan Evans and wing Tom Prydie also make their Drag-ons bows while Hugh Gustafson, who was a loosehead prop this time last year, is on the bench as deputy hooker.
HOW THEY LINE UP
Dragons: D Evans, W Harries, P Leach, A Tuilagi, T Prydie, Steffan Jones, W Evans, P Price, Steve Jones, D Way, A Coombs, I Nimmo, D Lydiate, J Groves, T Faletau.
Replacements: N Williams, H Gustafson, N Buck, A Jones, T Brown, J Evans, L Robling, A Smith.
ZEBRE: S Sinoti, G Venditti, R Quartaroli, G Garcia (captain), S Pace, L Orquera, T Tebaldi, S Perugini, C Festuccia, D Ryan, Q Geldenhuys, E Caffini, N Cattini, A Van Schalkwyk, F Cristiano.
Replacements: D Giazzon, A De Marchi, L Leibson, F Cazzola, F Ferrarini, A Chillon, A Chiesa, R Trevisan.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)