Gatland keeps it tight for Six Nations defence
January 19, 2009
Ospreys scrum-half Mike Phillips returns to the Wales squad for this year's Six Nations © Getty Images
Wales coach Warren Gatland has named the 28 players he will rely on to defend the Six Nations Championship title in 2009 and hailed the return of five of his 2008 Grand Slam campaigners as a major boost to his ambitions.
A total of seven names are trimmed from the 32-man Autumn squad, which became the only Northern Hemisphere side to boast a South Hemisphere scalp in November when they beat Australia 21-18 at the Millennium Stadium.
Mike Phillips, Gavin Henson, and Jonathan Thomas all return, whilst Jamie Roberts - who left the field with a fractured skull during the famous win over the Wallabies - and Huw Bennett, who also played little part in November, are also back from injury.
Bradley Davies, the 22-year-old Cardiff Blues second row, is called up to cover for long term injury victim Ian Evans and is the only uncapped player in the squad but he will be familiar with the Gatland regime after touring with Wales to South Africa last summer.
The selection of Phillips and the incumbent Gareth Cooper as the two scrum-halves in Gatland's streamlined squad means there is no room for Sale's Dwayne Peel and Bennett's return alongside Matthew Rees at hooker means Richard Hibbard misses out as Gatland points out three players simply don't go into two spots.
The November internationals which saw Wales rise to 5th in the IRB World Rankings also allowed Dan Biggar, Martyn Roberts, Morgan Stoddart and Eifion Lewis-Roberts to further their international ambitions but the quartet join Peel, Hibbard and the injured Grand Slam prop Duncan Jones in being forced to watch the beginning of the 2009 campaign from outside of the Wales camp - although Gatland is quick to point out the door is not shut on anyone.
"There are a few important players back from injury, Huw Bennett is back with us and the likes of Mike Phillips, Gavin Henson and Jonathan Thomas have been unavailable to us for some time now so we think they are going to really to strengthen the squad," said Gatland.
"We had a very hard decision to make at scrum-half, but were greatly impressed by the performances of Mike Phillips last year during the Six Nations and felt Gareth Cooper has done well both on tour in the summer and in the Autumn Series.
"It's a decision that we debated long and hard and the result is really difficult, it probably boiled down to the fact that Mike Phillips has played more rugby than Dwayne Peel since the Autumn, but it doesn't mean that the door is always going to be shut for him or anyone.
"We've tried to keep the squad relatively similar to the last 6 Nations campaign, part of that philosophy is to keep everything nice and tight and everyone in the squad feeling there is an opportunity to play for Wales and also make it difficult for people to come into the squad - make players really earn the right."
Gatland is fully aware his side will now carry the unfamiliar favourites tag for the 2009 tournament but he sees that as a challenge rather than a burden and knows he needs to draw an all of the experience available to him in the squad if Wales are to meet the challenge - and he singles out appendicitis victim Mark Jones as an example to all of his rugby colleagues, selected or not.
"Mark is still possibly a week or two away from fitness on medical advice, but he's in there because he is an important cog in the team," added Gatland. "He has been someone who has taken the disappointments of being left out in the past, but been a fantastic squad member and taken it incredibly well.
"I know it's hurt him sometimes when he has been left out, but he's responded incredibly positively to that and gone away and worked on his game and been a fantastic positive influence round the rest of the squad. He sets the example we are looking for.
"We will accept the challenge of being favourites, it's a new experience for a lot of coaches as well as players, but hopefully it will be something heaped on us more regularly and something we learn to handle, because our ambition is to improve and become one of the top four or five teams in the world.
"We have to make sure we are mentally right for Scotland. We have different pressures on us, perhaps a fear of failure and the expectation is on us to go out there and perform, but it will be very much like last year - win the first game and create momentum for success, lose that first game and we come home to England and away to France and it could be a completely different story."
Gatland's fellow selectors, backs coach Rob Howley and forwards coach Robin McBryde, both promote the view that less is more when it comes to naming the squad to defend the Six Nations title.
"We've named just 12 backs which has meant some tough calls, but I think we've ended up with a quality line-up that any nation would be proud of," said Howley. "At scrum-half in particular it probably could have gone either way, but we think we have made the right decision and both Mike and Gareth have earned our loyalty, it's now up to them to prove us right."
Howley singled out Peel's lack of game-time and a continuing dip in form as the reason for his exclusion.
"It is not all about the amount of rugby, it is the quality as well," he said. "I think Dwayne has been struggling with his consistency because he hasn't been playing. Sale will see Dwayne in training on a day-to-day basis, so they are making decisions based on, presumably, what they see.
"I don't really want to get mixed up in the selection at Sale. It is their decision. I am sure Dwayne will go away and work extremely hard. He needs to get on that field as often as possible to strut his stuff and show us that Dwayne Peel is back to the old Dwayne Peel."
McBryde singled out uncapped lock Bradley Davies for a special mention, but also admits there were selection debates to be had throughout the forward pack.
"Bradley is a young player that we are thinking about for the future, with Ian Evans injured we looked at Deiniol Jones too who has been unlucky, but having four second rows gives us that luxury to have a youngster in the squad and work on his development, " said the man who will lead Wales as caretaker coach for their tour of Canada and USA this summer.
"Bradley's been going well and we have been looking at him as one for the future, but he certainly came on and made an impact for the Blues in what was a great win for them at the weekend,
"We had a good chat about the front row and we still have our eye on the likes of Eifion Roberts at Sale, but we've ended up with a healthy competition for places in most areas and I think we can come up with a side that will be competitive in Scotland for our opening game, when the pressure will be on."
Wales squad for Six Nations Championship:
Backs: L Byrne (Ospreys), M Jones (Scarlets), L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), A Bishop (Ospreys), G Henson (Ospreys), J Hook (Ospreys), S Jones (Scarlets), G Cooper (Gloucester), M Phillips (Ospreys).
Forwards: G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Newport Gwent Dragons), M Rees (Scarlets), H Bennett (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), J Thomas (Ospreys), D Jones (Scarlets), A Powell (Cardiff Blues), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Sowden-Taylor (Cardiff Blues).