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Wales stage two full-contact practice matches in training for Six Nations opener

Wales have helped prepare themselves for a potentially-punishing start to their RBS 6 Nations campaign by staging two full-contact practice matches in training.

Nigel Owens, the 2015 World Cup final referee, controlled a 50-minute game last Saturday morning as Wales interim head coach Rob Howley stepped up preparations for two Tests in less than a week, with another match work-out held three days later.

Italy are first up in Rome on Sunday - followed by Six Nations title holders England at the Principality Stadium six days later - and Howley knows that establishing immediate momentum is vital.

"We've had two hit-outs, 15 against 15, and it has been very competitive in training," Howley said.

"It was about 50 minutes, give or take, last Saturday. With this Sunday in mind, it was important that the tempo, the accuracy and execution is what we focussed on in terms of our preparation.

"The last two weeks we have been putting foundations and blocks in place so hopefully the fundamentals are there for the next two games.

"There has been a lot of energy and enthusiasm over the past two weeks, and we are excited going into Sunday."

Howley has made five changes from the side that beat South Africa in November, including returns for scrum-half Rhys Webb, former captain Sam Warburton at blindside flanker and prop Samson Lee.

Justin Tipuric retains the number seven shirt, with Gloucester's Ross Moriarty completing the back-row and Scarlets lock Jake Ball chosen as new skipper Alun Wyn Jones' second-row partner.

Webb features after missing most of Wales' autumn Test series this season through injury, with Scarlets pair Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies teaming up in midfield and 86-times capped Jamie Roberts named on the bench.

Howley's team for Rome also includes Ospreys loosehead prop Nicky Smith, who takes over from an injured Gethin Jenkins, but uncapped flankers Thomas Young and Olly Cracknell have missed out making the match-day 23, while Bath forwards Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau were both unavailable through injury.

"We believe this is the best team to start the tournament," Howley added.

"We are against a very competitive Italian side away from home in the Six Nations. We have gone with a lot of experience.

"I was just thinking back to when we have started tournaments well and achieved momentum. That's our goal - to go over there and start this tournament well.

"Alun Wyn Jones made a fantastic point to me about the experience of the team, saying it puts pressure on those players who have been selected. We have picked experience, but they have to go out and play.

"The side that's been selected has about a 70 per cent winning ratio in the Six Nations. They know what winning looks and smells like in the Six Nations, and that's the challenge on Sunday."

Wales have won 10 successive Tests against Italy, and topped 60 points on each of their last two Six Nations outings against them.

But they will be wary of an Azzurri outfit now under the coaching direction of former Harlequins boss Conor O'Shea, especially as Italy beat South Africa for the first time in Test match history just under three months ago.

"When you look at the players they've got, they have got a fair amount of experienced players," Howley said.

"I watched the Zebre v Wasps (European Champions Cup) game recently, and the first 20 minutes of that game in particular. There are a lot of players in the Italy side from that team, and Zebre were 13-3 up against the number one side in the Premiership.

"It is about getting our mindset right, and making sure we look after what we need to look after in preparation for the game."

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