Gary Carr/INPHO Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones has 155 Test caps.
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Gatland reveals hand by calling on the veterans for Wales against Ireland
The Wales boss has brought back some experienced heads alongside a sprinkling of youth.

WARREN GATLAND HAS gone back to the future.

To be fair to the Wales boss, he has never been afraid to give young players a chance when he feels they’re ready. He made Sam Warburton the Wales captain when the openside flanker was just 22.

And Gatland’s first selection back in the Wales job does include some fresh-faced youngsters who have shown promise. Six players are set for Six Nations debuts.

20-year-old Ospreys inside centre Joe Hawkins will start against Ireland having made an impressive Test debut against Argentina last autumn. He’s a solidly-built man with a silky set of skills.

23-year-old Dragons wing Rio Dyer is in the starting XV too, having scored two tries in his first three caps in November. He still has lots to learn but can shred teams with his pace and balance.

There’s 23-year-old flanker Jac Morgan too, with the Ospreys back row a good tip to be one of the breakout players of the entire Six Nations. The dynamic Morgan can jackal, tackle, and carry with the best of them.

There’s another 20-year-old on the bench in Exeter lock Dafydd Jenkins, capped just once so far, and the abrasive flanker Tommy Reffell is only 23. These young men are the new generation. Welsh fans are rightly excited about their potential.

jac-morgan Ashley Crowden / INPHO Jac Morgan has been excellent for Ospreys. Ashley Crowden / INPHO / INPHO

But the main bulk of Gatland’s squad to face Ireland on Saturday in their Six Nations opener at a sold-out Principality Stadium is hugely experienced. As statistician Russ Petty pointed out, eight of Gatland’s matchday 23 were in Wales’ Six Nations squad back in 2012.

It makes sense that Gatland has opted largely for Test-level nous. He has had a minuscule window of preparation for this championship, so clearly feels he needs a core group of players who know what’s coming. He feels that those who have been in the cauldron-like atmosphere of Cardiff are best placed to give him a winning start.

He has recalled 34-year-old Leigh Halfpenny at fullback in the hope of having him at his metronomic best off the tee in what may be a tight game. Halfpenny was never the most attacking-minded selection but Gatland will want to see his backfield solidity and calmness under the high ball featuring prominently. It’s a big call as Liam Williams – who has had frustrating injury issues recently – misses out.

The warhorses of captain Ken Owens, 155-times capped Alun Wyn Jones, and the brilliant back row pair of Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau are very familiar in the Welsh pack. They delivered so many times for Gatland in his first spell in charge and now he hopes that there is plenty of life left in them at the top level.

Incredibly, second row Jones made his Six Nations debut against Ireland all the way back in 2007. His likely opposite number on Saturday, James Ryan, was just 10-years-old at that stage. Jones’ longevity is remarkable even if he isn’t the player he once was.

The Welsh bench includes several returning players who didn’t feature recently under Wayne Pivac. Former Lions wing Alex Cuthbert and 34-year-old Rhys Webb are back for the first time since 2020, while hooker Scott Baldwin and out-half Owen Williams last played for Wales in 2017.

wales-training-and-press-conference-vale-resort-tuesday-january-31st PA Gatland at Wales training this week. PA

When it comes to the veterans, Gatland has gone heavy here. Jones is 37, Owens is 36, Halfpenny, Webb, and Baldwin are all 34. There are two 33-year-olds in Dan Biggar and Tipuric, with another five players in their 30s. 

There are 952 caps worth of Test experience in the starting XV, with another 195 to come off the bench. If experience is key, Wales are sorted for Saturday. 

The selection comes with doubts, however. Is this crop of Welsh players that served Gatland so well before now past its sell-by date? He fancies the energy of Cardiff this weekend to help them reel back the years.

Gatland has played his hand early in the week and given Ireland clear sight of what they’re up against. He has labelled his men as underdogs – which they are – and backed his side to cause Ireland some pain on opening day.

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