Warren Gatland is feeling confident about Wales’ chances in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations – and it’s easy to see why after he named his 39-strong squad for the Championship.
With Alun Wyn Jones’ 120 caps of experience at captain, Gatland has found a nice blend of know-how and new faces that should be more enough to cope with some injury absentees such as the unfortunate Taulupe Faletau.
Click here for the full set of 2019 Guinness Six Nations fixtures
It will be Gatland’s final Championship campaign with Wales – he will step down from the role after this year’s Rugby World Cup – and the head coach will be keen to finish on a high. Particularly considering he won the first Championship he took charge of back in 2008.
Wales kick off this year’s campaign against France at the Stade de France in Paris and before they go into battle, here’s a look at all the key talking points from Gatland’s squad.
EXPERIENCE ALL OVER
One thing that stands out from the 39 names selected is the fact that not one player has yet to make their international debut, while nine players have won 50 caps or more.
Wales will be led by the titanic Jones, who is the only survivor of Gatland’s first Six Nations squad in 2008 – which went on to win the Grand Slam.
He is one of nine British and Irish Lions to make the cut, with the likes of Ken Owens, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies all getting the nod.
Continuity has also clearly been at the forefront of Gatland’s mind after Wales completed an unprecedented clean sweep during the Autumn Internationals in November.
Of the 37 players picked for that Test series, 32 are named in his 2019 Guinness Six Nations squad – with most of the players who have missed out doing so because of injury.
BACK ROW BATTLE
Many have called for in-form Thomas Young to be given another chance at international level and Gatland has obliged by selecting the Wasps flanker in his for the first time squad.
The 26-year-old has regularly impressed for his club side in the Gallagher Premiership this season, but he has not featured for his country since making the 2017 squad under Rob Howley while Gatland was on Lions duty.
Named as one of seven uncapped players then, Young didn’t feature in any of the Championship matches before being handed his Test debut against Tonga on the summer tour that followed.
He now has his chance to stake his claim for a starting place in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, although he faces plenty of competition from the rest of the back rowers in the squad.
Even with injuries to Faletau, Ellis Jenkins and Aaron Shingler, Gatland still has Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Ross Moriarty and the versatile Josh Turnbull at his disposal.
GIVING YOUTH A CHANCE
Gatland certainly appears to have one eye on the future with his selection for the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, with the New Zealander giving another opportunity to Jarrod Evans.
The young fly-half got his first taste of international rugby in the autumn, coming off the bench in the 21-10 victory against Scotland at the Principality Stadium.
While he has only recently recovered from injury, he showed the attacking flair he can bring for club side Cardiff Blues in their defeat against Glasgow Warriors in the Champions Cup.
It makes the battle for the No.10 shirt even more interesting and will see Evans go against Biggar, Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe for a chance to make his Championship debut.
With Biggar and Patchell both returning from their own injury troubles, Anscombe would appear to be the frontrunner to start in Paris – but Evans will be waiting in the wings for his chance.
Gatland revealed Leigh Halfpenny will be assessed when the squad assembles after naming him in his squad and the head coach appears hopeful the full back will play some part.
“We’ll see where he is at,” Gatland said. “He’s been advised to continue training and if he’s right, he’ll be in contention but if not, we’ll have to make some other plans.”
Halfpenny has been out of action for club and country since being injured in Wales’ 9-6 win against Australia in the Autumn internationals in November.
While he will likely miss the opening games, he could make his return later in the Championship – hence why Gatland has opted to include him in his 39-man squad.
His back-three options are plentiful, though, with Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, Steff Evans, Jonah Holmes, George North and Liam Williams all selected by Gatland.
Williams was Gatland’s No.15 for all three Lions Tests against the All Blacks and while he operates almost exclusively on the wing for club side Saracens, he could be back in his preferred full-back berth in Paris for round one.