British & Irish Lion Gavin Henson has been given the opportunity to redeem himself from the bench in Wales’ Six Nations Championship clash with Italy on Saturday.
Henson took full responsibility for Wales’ thumping 31-5 defeat in Ireland two weekends ago and stated his form did not warrant selection for the Italy game.
But caretaker coach Scott Johnson has kept faith with the Ospreys centre and included him among the replacements in a Wales squad featuring three changes.
Winger Shane Williams returns to the side in place of Dafydd James after recovering from a dead leg and is the only change to the starting XV.
Stephen Jones has recovered from the dead leg that forced him off the field at Lansdowne Road. And winger Mark Jones, who was rated as only a 50-50 chance earlier this week after suffering bruised ribs in Llanelli’s Powergen Cup semi-final win over Bath, is fit enough to be included in the side.
There are two changes on the bench. Alix Popham, the Llanelli number eight who enjoyed a stand-out performance against Bath at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, has been rewarded with a call-up at the expense of Bath’s Gareth Delve.
And after Henson’s disappointing performance as stand-in fly-half in Dublin – he replaced Stephen Jones after just 20 minutes – Johnson has included Cardiff’s Nicky Robinson on the bench in place of Barry Davies.
"We have kept the faith with the majority of the side that underperformed in Dublin and told them to go out there on Saturday and put things right," said Johnson.
"The boys have a second chance to prove what they are capable of and that the last outing was just a blip.
‘What we saw against Ireland just wasn’t us and my message to the fans is ‘don’t give up on us yet, this is our hour of need and we need you now more than ever’.
‘Alix really played himself into the squad with his performance for the Scarlets on Saturday. He is getting what he deserves and forcing us to look at him in a different light.
‘He will be a potent weapon for us from the bench if necessary.
"Nicky Robinson comes onto the bench as direct cover for Stephen Jones at fly-half.’
Henson was included in the squad for the Ireland game despite having played only five games all season due to a combination of injury and suspension.
He was then thrust into the unfamiliar fly-half role when Jones limped off and struggled to adapt to the rigours of Test rugby.
But Johnson has kept faith with Henson, who played for the Ospreys in the Celtic League on Friday, and he provides cover for both the centre and full-back positions this weekend.
‘We have retained Gavin Henson as cover for a number of positions in the backs,’ said Johnson.
"The philosophy here is to keep this side tight, we are a close-knit group and we have had to maintain our focus in the last fortnight to ensure the performance will be in front of our home fans at the Millennium Stadium.
"Italy will be strong, they are the biggest improvers in the Championship, but that is exactly the test we need, to get ourselves back on track.
"This season’s championship is the most open in years, which is great for the competition. If we do our part well and get our performances right in the next two weeks who knows where we will end up, after all it’s still our title to defend."
Wales team to play Italy at the Millennium Stadium in the Six Nations Championship on Saturday:
L Byrne (Llanelli Scarlets); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), H Luscombe (Newport Gwent Dragons), M Watkins (Llanelli Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets); D Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Newport Gwent Dragons), R Sidoli (Cardiff Blues), C Charvis (Newcastle Falcons), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), M Owen (capt, Newport Gwent Dragons)
Replacements: M Davies (Gloucester), G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), A Popham (Llanelli Scarlets), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues), N Robinson (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys).