Six Nations 2014: Warren Gatland spoilt for choice as Wales go for hat-trick


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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland has a propensity for mind games but when he said his team for the start of Wales' challenge for a hat-trick of Six Nations titles was arguably his hardest selection, there was a ring of truth.

During the November internationals, Gatland was beset by a litany of key injuries but now he has the rarity of a virtually full-strength squad to select from. Such is the battle for places that not even being match-fit is sufficient to make the starting line-up for even the biggest names.

Captain Sam Warburton, despite being declared fit, will start the match against Italy from the bench, with Alun Wyn Jones taking over the captaincy, as he did for the British & Irish Lions finale when Warburton was unfit.

But merely being named in the squad following a shoulder injury which has ruled Warburton out since the Test against Australia two months ago is an indicator of how integral he is to Gatland's plans.

Warburton could yet start the match. Dan Lydiate was included in the starting line-up but he is a doubt, having left the camp early Tuesday to fly to Paris after his girlfriend went into labour.

Warburton is not the only fit player to miss out on a start. Gethin Jenkins was cleared for his 102nd Test at prop but the Wales management opted against it because of his injury problems in recent Six Nations campaigns, while the centre Jonathan Davies, recovering from a pectoral muscle injury, will play for the Scarlets at the weekend as Wales host Italy at the Millennium Stadium.

Of his selections, Gatland admitted: "This is the hardest team we've picked for a long time, whether it's the starting XV or the bench."

Dan Biggar, who was integral to Wales' Six Nations title win a year ago, can consider himself unlucky to miss out to Rhys Priestland at fly-half and Gatland admitted as much, reasoning the lack of runners at the Ospreys, in contrast to Wales' rampant back line, had harshly counted against him. Biggar does not even make the bench, the versatility of James Hook offering more options as and when required.

A year ago, Wales had a dire opening 40 minutes to their Six Nations against Ireland. The threat provided by the Azzurri will be a softer start but Gatland is wary of complacency, saying: "We need to make sure we get out of the blocks and don't get caught with our pants down."

He was asked how important history was, as Wales attempt to be the first team to win a hat-trick of Six Nations titles. "Massive," he said. "There's the potential to do something special. It's nice to talk about that and focus on that."