Wales look to blend old and new with Warrenball for Six Nations opener against Ireland

Leigh Halfpenny returns from knee injury and young centre Joe Hawkins starts at 12 as Ken Owens captains the side

The old boilerplate brief would read a blend of old and new. The Welsh team selected to face Ireland in the Six Nations opener on Saturday has a familiar look, with Warren Gatland doing as he often does: reaching towards what he knows best.

His picks were both rational and cautious and, although the coach will see it as a pejorative term, there is also a touch of Warrenball about the selection.

Three players in the starting team are in single-figure caps: inside centre Joe Hawkins with one cap, left wing flyer Rio Dyer with three caps and blindside flanker Jac Morgan with six caps.

There is considerable excitement about 20-year-old Hawkins, who earned his solitary run in Wayne Pivac’s final match in charge against Australia.


Morgan’s presence in the backrow and Hawkins’ in the centre points to a rationale Gatland uses throughout the team: put inexperienced players beside tried and trusted.

Alongside Morgan is Ospreys openside flanker Justin Tipuric and Cardiff number 8 Taulupe Faletau with 89 and 95 caps respectively, while Hawkins is paired with his Ospreys team-mate the 109-cap, six-foot-four, 130-pound George North.

Gatland picked 13 Ospreys players in his first match in charge 15 years ago. This time it is 12 Ospreys including the bench players, and that has a simplicity to it that served him well during his first cycle as Wales coach.

Know the team strengths and never overreach.

Over half of those named for this weekend’s opening game against Ireland have 40 caps or more, with centurions’ North, Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones monolithic figures of Welsh rugby.

Nine of the selected players were involved in Gatland’s last game in charge of Wales against the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup.

In fullback Leigh Halfpenny, he has a player who is safe under the high balls Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park will use to probe, and in the secondrow, like the backrow, Adam Beard and Wyn Jones will challenge a possible Irish pairing of Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan.

Trusted lieutenant Wyn Jones, at 37 years old and a world record holder with 137 caps, is a valuable piece of kit in leadership and reading the room for as long as his legs will last.

That is, at least until the bench begins to spill on, with the less well-known 20-year-old lock Daffyd Jenkins from Exeter Chiefs, backrow Tommy Reffell from Leicester Tigers and Ospreys’ Owen Williams, who returned from Japan last year to Worcester Warriors only to find himself unemployed.

They have all been in-form players for their clubs including the more experienced Alex Cuthbert, who is also named on the bench.

What is both good and bad for Ireland is that they know how this Welsh team will approach the match, and in Cardiff that’s a tough beginning as Ireland have not won there for 10 years.

Still the Welsh coach, who has won three Grand Slams, said: “Ireland go into the Six Nations as favourites.”

Explaining the balancing act he has undertaken, Gatland said: “In fairness to the players, I’ve been surprised by the competition in the squad. We had a really good selection meeting last night and some robust debate. Kicking off this first game, we want some experience and continuity.”

One of the surprise omissions was Cardiff’s Liam Williams, with Gatland preferring Halfpenny, who has returned after a serious knee injury and is set to make his first Wales start for 19 months.

“There’s no doubt Liam will feature at some point,” said Gatland.

WALES: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets – 97 caps); Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby – 43 caps), George North (Ospreys – 109 caps), Joe Hawkins (Ospreys – 1 cap), Rio Dyer (Dragons – 3 caps); Dan Biggar (Toulon – 103 caps), Tomos Williams (Cardiff Rugby – 40 caps); Gareth Thomas (Ospreys – 17 caps), Ken Owens (Scarlets – 86 caps) captain, Tomas Francis (Ospreys – 67 caps), Adam Beard (Ospreys – 41 caps), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys – 155 caps), Jac Morgan (Ospreys – 6 caps), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys – 89 caps), Taulupe Faletau (Cardiff Rugby – 95 caps). Replacements: Scott Baldwin (Ospreys – 34 caps), Rhys Carre (Cardiff Rugby – 17 caps), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Rugby – 45 caps), Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs – 1 cap), Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers – 4 caps), Rhys Webb (Ospreys – 36 caps), Owen Williams (Ospreys – 3 caps), Alex Cuthbert (Ospreys – 55 caps).