Gatland convinces Williams to rejoin Welsh party

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Wasps coach Shaun Edwards yesterday confirmed he would join Wales, the land of his great-great-grandfather, on a part-time basis in time for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. This was not much of a surprise, given the hints he had been dropping since November. At the same time, the Red Dragonhood unveiled Ryan Jones as their new captain and announced that Martyn Williams, the best open-side flanker in Britain, would be coming out of international retirement to play alongside him. These were not surprises either. They were full-scale shocks.

Williams, perhaps the most intelligent footballing forward seen in these islands in a generation, called it a day last October after Wales' embarrassingly early exit from the 2007 World Cup, and had spent the remaining two months of the year insisting to all and sundry that he would not be revisiting his decision. However, the new head coach of the national team, Warren Gatland, talked him into doing just that. As a result, Williams has been named in a 28-strong party.

Jones could hardly have expected to be awarded the captaincy. A big hit on the Lions' tour of New Zealand in the summer of 2005, he has suffered serious shoulder problems since and struggled to maintain his early momentum; indeed, he is only four games into his latest comeback from surgery. He is, however, a popular and engaging figure, and at his best, he brings to the Welsh back row an explosive power far beyond anything offered by his direct rivals for the shirt.

"It took less than five seconds for me to accept," he said. "Captaining your country is the greatest honour and I've felt 10 feet tall since Warren asked me."

On the vexed open-side flanker issue, Gatland might have placed his faith in the increasingly effective Robin Sowden-Taylor. Seventy-six caps' worth of experience was too much for the New Zealander to ignore, though.

Ten of the players who did duty at the World Cup find themselves on the outside looking in, including former captains in Gareth Thomas, Colin Charvis and Michael Owen. Gavin Henson is back in the fold, however, as are the Ospreys full-back Lee Byrne and the Gloucester No 8 Gareth Delve. In addition, Gatland has selected two promising young Cardiff Blues strike runners, Tom James and Jamie Roberts. The smart money is on at least one of them to raise eyebrows during the Six Nations.

Edwards' arrival ends weeks of complicated discussions between Wasps, with whom he agreed a two-year contract extension yesterday, Wales and the Rugby Football Union, which, alarmed by interest in his potent motivational qualities from the far side of the Severn Bridge, belatedly tried to get him involved with England. Predictably, a low-profile job running the second-string Saxons team did not appeal – Edwards wants to make the Lions' coaching team for next year's trip to South Africa – and once Wasps agreed to release him on an as-and-when basis, his decision was straightforward, especially as Gatland is a friend.

How this arrangement will work is anyone's guess. Not even Edwards can be in two places simultaneously, and on three of the five championship weekends Wasps will be addressing Premiership business. Can Edwards hope to see as much of Welsh rugby as might be deemed necessary if he is spending most of his waking hours cracking the whip at the Wasps training ground in Acton? According to Gatland, the answer is in the affirmative.

The former rugby league maestro will concentrate on defensive matters, while Rob Howley, a Lions scrum-half of repute, comes in as attack coach. They join Neil Jenkins, Robin McBryde and Mark Bennett in the inner circle of Gatland's back-room team.

Wales squad (for Six Nations Championship): Backs: L Byrne (Ospreys), J Roberts, T James (both Cardiff Blues), M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), S Parker, G Henson, J Hook (all Ospreys), S Jones, D Peel (both Llanelli Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys), G Cooper (Gloucester). Forwards: G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), A Jones, D Jones (both Ospreys), R Thomas (Newport-Gwent Dragons), H Bennett (Ospreys), M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), I Evans, I Gough, A-W Jones, J Thomas (all Ospreys), M Williams, R Sowden-Taylor (both Cardiff Blues), G Delve (Gloucester), A Popham (Llanelli Scarlets), R Jones (Ospreys, capt).