Gatland gambles on Priestland at No 10 for Springboks clash

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The Independent Online

Few outside west Wales had even heard of Rhys Priestland just seven months ago, yet the little-known 24-year-old will be thrown into one of the most famous jerseys in rugby to face South Africa on Sunday.

Priestland, second choice to Stephen Jones at his club the Scarlets, will now be handed the biggest game of his life in Wales' opening match of the World Cup in a remarkable gamble by coach Warren Gatland.

James Hook had been favourite to spearhead the Welsh attack with Jones struggling to shake off the after-effects of a back complaint that ruled him out of all three summer Tests, particularly given his match-winning displays against both England and Argentina last month.

But with South Africa's Morne Steyn expected to unleash an aerial bombardment upon the red jerseys at Wellington – and Lee Byrne's dramatic loss of form – Gatland has once again shifted Hook to the rearguard.

Hook has always been diplomatic over his cursed luck in being so versatile that he can play Test rugby in four different positions, though this selection will raise eyebrows across the competition.

This time, Gatland hopes, the switch could conversely see Hook with the ball in hand on plenty of occasions, although it also leaves the coach gambling in the biggest game of his reign upon a novice who has started at fly-half only twice at this level.

Wales have also struggled to get many of their other walking wounded back on to the pitch in time for the start of their campaign in New Zealand.

Ryan Jones, who missed the 2007 tournament with a shoulder injury, must wait longer for his World Cup debut owing to a calf problem while another British Lions forward, Gethin Jenkins, remains absent with a similar complaint.

However, there is still a touch of magic in the team in the compact shape of Shane Williams and size enough to compete with the Springboks in Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips, George North and Adam Jones.

Sam Warburton will become the youngest player to lead Wales into the World Cup, 24 days before his 23rd birthday, in one of the most exciting back-row trios in the competition alongside Newport-Gwent Dragons pair Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.

A third Dragons forward, 6ft 9in lock Luke Charteris, is drafted in, with South Africa expected to name Danie Rossouw in place of the injured second-rower Bakkies Botha.

Gatland said: "We are going into this game looking for a win. If you get the world champions in your pool you want to play them first up and throw everything you've got at them. We've got the toughest group in the competition, but we know if we can come through we will be in good shape."

"The players have done everything we have asked of them so far, they have worked incredibly hard," added Gatland, the gambling man.

Wales J Hook; G North, J Davies, J Roberts, S Williams; R Priestland, M Phillips; P James, H Bennett, A Jones, L Charteris, A W Jones, D Lydiate, T Faletau, S Warburton (capt). Replacements L Burns, R Bevington, B Davies, A Powell, T Knoyle, S Williams, L Halfpenny.