It may be rather less monochromatic than the 2008 starting XV but again there is a heavy Ospreys shade to the Welsh side to face Ireland in their Six Nations opener. Toby Booth’s team have beaten both the French and English champions in the last month, wins built on the strength of a gnarled pack; six of Gatland’s starting forwards in Cardiff have travelled east along the M4.
“There’s a mixture in the team of some experience, some younger players,” Gatland said of a team containing close to 1,000 international caps, which includes a starting recall for old warrior Alun Wyn Jones. “Ireland are the number one team in the world, so they’re going to be coming here with a lot of confidence.
“We know how good they are and we’re expecting a really tough contest. It’s important for us that we start well, but we need to be in the game at the last 20 minutes.”
Gatland has recalled Alun Wyn Jones to start in the first line-up of his second tenure
The faces are largely familiar, which is little surprise. 12 of the side that started the Australia-induced collapse that closed the autumn begin again, including a number who were favourites under Gatland before. Limited training time for Liam Williams grants Leigh Halfpenny an opportunity at full back – his right boot and aerial prowess are handy assets with a pared-down gameplan likely.
Of greater intrigue is Joe Hawkins at 12. For all the worry and woe in Welsh rugby, there is a talented crop of youngsters already approaching Test level. Young Rio Dyer is another backline starter, while Daffyd Jenkins and Tommy Reffell are set for Six Nations debuts from the bench with Christ Tshiunza’s likely to come in the next few weeks.
Another immediate Grand Slam is almost certainly beyond even a proven short-term schemer like Gatland, but he has settled back into his role with a quiet confidence and believes his side will relish the challenge against the top-ranked men’s side in the world.
“The only pressure is the one we put on ourselves,” Gatland said. “They’re the form team in world rugby.
“We realise what a challenge that will be and they have the continuity of being unbeaten in the autumn. The underdog tag is something the Welsh boys tend to relish. They like people writing them off. I’m confident we’ll give a good account of themselves.”
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