Birthday blues for Henson as ban rules out Thomas

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The Independent Online

The focus in Wales yesterday was not so much on who was in the team to face Ireland but rather on the two players who would miss the opening Six Nations match.

Although the Wales coach, Gareth Jenkins, named Gareth Thomas on the wing, it could not prevent the former Wales captain from being banned by a European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel in Dublin four hours later. And Gavin Henson received the sort of 25th birthday present he could have done without by being dropped completely.

Thomas was found guilty of aggressively attempting to enter one of the seating areas in the stadium during the Heineken Cup tie between the Welshman's club Toulouse and Ulster last month. He also pleaded guilty to making an offensive hand gesture, namely raising a middle finger towards spectators.

The three-man panel chaired by England's Judge Jeff Blackett found Thomas not guilty, however, of "engaging in aggressive exchanges with spectators".

He is suspended until 1 March, which means he misses Wales' three opening Six Nations matches against Ireland, Scotland and France. As a result Jenkins brought his selection plan B into play, moving Hal Luscombe on to the wing from outside centre and calling up Jamie Robinson of Cardiff to the bench. Aled Brew, the Ospreys 20-year-old wing who is on a season-long loan to Newport-Gwent Dragons, was last night called up to join the replacements.

Jenkins said: "We are all hugely disappointed, but we had a contingency plan in place which is robust and we will deal with the Irish challenge on that basis." Jenkins has a relative rookie, Cardiff's speedy Chris Czekaj, on the other wing while Jamie Hook partners Robinson in the centre, the two of them charged with containing the danger posed by the best centre pairing in the world, Ireland's Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll.

Henson misses out but Jenkins was happy to justify his decision. "He is not good enough to be in this team," Jenkins said. "The problem is he is under pressure from too many things outside the game. I don't think there is a moment when he is not being scrutinised.

"At the moment he is not playing his best rugby, but that doesn't mean that he can't get back into contention for Six Nations selection, and I will be judging him week by week throughout the campaign."

Jenkins clearly feels Henson, the Ospreys fly-half/centre, needs a wake-up call. Recently he was in the news for the wrong reasons after going on a skiing holiday with Charlotte Church, his opera-singer girlfriend. The coach said the player had taken the news on the chin: "I've sat down and talked with him about this. He is realistic. He shares our views."

Of those who will be playing most interest centred on the front row where Chris Horsman is at tighthead, acknowledged as one of the best technical players in the Premiership, and Gethin Jenkins at loosehead.

According to Jenkins they have been picked for their ability to neutralise the threat posed by Ireland's experienced front row. "It is a tactical selection," Jenkins explained. "Ireland's front row has a particular style, which we feel Chris and Gethin can deal with."

The team also features the 21-year-old Alun Wyn Jones of Ospreys at lock and Alix Popham of Llanelli Scarlets at blindside flanker. He forms a formidable looking power trio alongside the veteran Martyn Williams and the dynamic Ryan Jones.

Wales team (v Ireland, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Sunday, 3.0): K Morgan (Newport Gwent Dragons); H Luscombe (Harlequins), J Robinson (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), C Czekaj (Cardiff); S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets, capt), D Peel (Llanelli); G Jenkins (Cardiff), R Thomas (Cardiff), C Horsman (Worcester), I Gough (Dragons), A Wyn Jones (Ospreys), A Popham (Llanelli), M Williams (Cardiff), R Jones (Ospreys).

Replacements: M Rees (Llanelli), D Jones (Ospreys), R Sidoli (Cardiff), Gavin Thomas (Llanelli), M Phillips (Cardiff), C Sweeney (Dragons), A Brew (Dragons).