Wayne Pivac believes Wales have shown growth through this season’s Guinness Six Nations as they bid for a third-place finish.

A bonus-point victory over Italy on Saturday could see Wales take third spot, depending on how England and Scotland fare in their final games.

Wales’ title defence floundered on a miserable start against Ireland, while further losses followed against England and France, albeit by a combined margin of just eight points.


They also went into the competition without injured British and Irish Lions Alun Wyn Jones, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

Navidi and Faletau are now back in the starting line-up, and Jones returns this weekend after more than four months out with shoulder trouble to win his 150th Wales cap.

“At the start of the competition we had probably written it off due to the absentees,” Wales head coach Pivac said.

“But certainly, we’ve grown throughout the competition, which has been really, really pleasing.

“You’ve got to remember when you get players in from the four regions and the fifth region, which is the English Premiership, bringing it together takes a little bit of time.

“History will show that, but also some of the big names we had to replace and the lack of form some players came into the competition with meant it was always going to be a bit of a challenge.

“I don’t think we are too far off, and with some other players to come back into the mix going forward for the summer tour (to South Africa) we are in a reasonable space.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction in terms of the experiences some players have got, not only in terms of starting positions and on the bench, but also in leadership roles.

Ireland v WalesDejected Wales players after their Six Nations defeat against Ireland (Niall Carson/PA)

“We are building depth in a number of areas, which is really important going through to the World Cup next year.

“Clearly, we want to win every Test match when we take to the field, and we weren’t happy with round one (against Ireland), but steadily we’ve built and there have been a lot of positives to come out of the last three matches.”

Jones, 36, will become the first player in rugby union history to play 150 Tests for their country when he runs out at the Principality Stadium.

And although fly-half Dan Biggar, who took over as skipper from Jones for the Six Nations and wins his 100th cap on Saturday, retains the captaincy, Jones’ return comes as a huge boost for Pivac and his squad.

Pivac added: “He’s had a surgery and it has been successful. Certainly, the surgeon is happy with him.

“We wouldn’t risk Al or any other player if they weren’t good to go. It is the people who are experts in these fields who we look to in these situations.

“You’ve got to remember that prior to injury, Al was captain, starting, and playing very, very good rugby.

“His numbers speak for themselves in terms of the workload he gets through during a game.”

Wales team to face Italy (Saturday 19 March, KO 2.15pm. Live on BBC and S4C):

15. Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets – 9 caps)

14. Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester Rugby – 15 caps)

13. Owen Watkin (Ospreys – 30 caps)

12. Uilisi Halaholo (Cardiff Rugby – 9 caps)

11. Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby – 38 caps)

10. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints – 99 caps), captain

9. Gareth Davies (Scarlets – 66 caps);

1. Gareth Thomas (Ospreys – 9 caps)

2. Dewi Lake (Ospreys – 4 caps)

3. Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Rugby – 37 caps)

4. Adam Beard (Ospreys – 33 caps), vice-captain

5. Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys – 149 caps)

6. Seb Davies (Cardiff Rugby – 16 caps)

7. Josh Navidi (Cardiff Rugby – 29 caps)

8. Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby – 88 caps).

Replacements 16. Bradley Roberts (Ulster Rugby – 1 cap)

17. Wyn Jones (Scarlets – 42 caps)

18. Leon Brown (Dragons – 21 caps)

19. Will Rowlands (Dragons – 17 caps)

20. Ross Moriarty (Dragons – 53 caps)

21. Kieran Hardy (Scarlets – 10 caps)

22. Callum Sheedy (Bristol Bears – 15 caps)

23. Nick Tompkins (Saracens – 19 caps).