Warren Gatland goes into his ninth Six Nations in charge of Wales confident that his largely unchanged squad can build on a brave World Cup campaign in adversity and keep top players away from the chequebooks of leading English and French clubs.
Ten of Wales’s 37-strong squad for the Six Nations are based outside the country, and the injured Toulon full-back Leigh Halfpenny makes it 11. Two are returning home next season, the centre Jonathan Davies and the utility back Matthew Morgan, while the second-row Alun Wyn Jones, who captained the Lions in the decisive Test in the 2013 series against Australia, this week signed a new national dual contract.
“The goal is to keep as many players as we can in Wales,” said Gatland. “Ideally, we want them all playing here because that would make the regions stronger and help the national team. We are under a lot of pressure from English and French clubs in the terms of salaries that have been offered to players and that is something we have to deal with.
“An advantage we have is being able to select from the regions. I know the frustrations in France at the number of foreign players there and it is a bit of a concern in England as well, especially when they occupy key positions. It does level the playing field, and we saw in the World Cup the value of having preparation time. We were together for five months which gave us the opportunity to fulfil our potential. We are confident that if we do not pick up too many injuries that we will do well in the Six Nations.”
Under the terms of the agreement with the four regions, Gatland is able to select two wild-cards in his squad, players based outside Wales who turned down the offer of a regional contract. Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland, the outside-half Bath thought would be available for them this Six Nations but who Wales maintain never said that he wanted a break from international rugby, take up the spots this year but next season, when the number will rise to three, the wing George North and the second row Luke Charteris will be in the mix after turning down the opportunity to return to Wales.
Gatland named one uncapped player in the squad, the Scarlets’ scrum-half Aled Davies, while the wing Tom James and the flanker Josh Turnbull, who did not feature in the World Cup, return. Halfpenny, Scott Williams and Rhys Webb will miss the tournament, but the full-back Liam Williams is expected to return for the Scarlets against Northampton this weekend after aggravating a foot injury during the World Cup.
“The squad is a reflection of how well the players did in the World Cup and I was proud of what they achieved,” said Gatland, who added he would not be thinking about the position of Lions head coach for next year’s tour to New Zealand until after Wales’s summer trip there. “Apart from a couple of the loosehead props, they should be around in 2019 and we are excited about where we are at the moment.”
Wales have won the last two Six Nations in the year following a World Cup and, as in 2012, they start in Dublin. “I think Ireland are the favourites for the championship having won it for the last two years, although there is an unknown factor with England and France having new coaches,” said Gatland. “They like people writing them off, but we go into the tournament respecting them immensely, particularly for what they have achieved under Joe Schmidt.”
Wales Six Nations squad
Forwards: Rob Evans (Scarlets), Paul James (Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Aaron Jarvis (Ospreys), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Luke Charteris (Racing 92), Bradley Davies (Wasps), Dominic Day (Bath), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Josh Turnbull (Cardiff Blues), Taulupe Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons), James King (Ospreys), Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Sam Warburton (capt, Cardiff Blues).
Backs: Aled Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff Blues) Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Priestland (Bath), Cory Allen (Cardiff Blues), Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne), Tyler Morgan (Newport Gwent Dragons), Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Hallam Amos (Newport Gwent Dragons), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Tom James (Cardiff Blues), George North (Northampton Saints), Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Matthew Morgan (Bristol), Liam Williams (Scarlets).
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