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Wales call Pretorius of South Africa into Six Nations squad

Nelspruit-born back-row, who qualifies on grounds of residency, one of five uncapped players named

Rob Howley, Wales' interim coach, has included the South African-born Andries Pretorius in his squad for the Six Nations in an attempt to cement greater leadership into the ranks of the defending champions as they look to revive their fortunes following a dire sequence of results since claiming the Grand Slam a year ago.

Pretorius is newly qualified for Wales on residency grounds – having met the 36-month time span required by the International Rugby Board – and is ushered straight into the squad by Howley. Wales lost all four matches in the autumn, making it seven in a row off the back of last summer's tour to Australia, with a lack of leaders cited by Howley as one of the factors in his side's poor run.

The 27-year-old back-row forward has shone as captain of the Cardiff Blues and is one of five uncapped players included in the 35-strong squad. Fellow back-rower Josh Navidi, locks James King and Andrew Coombs and the 20-year-old wing Eli Walker, who has started only 27 games for Ospreys, are also given their first call. Wales open their Six Nations campaign against Ireland in Cardiff two weeks on Saturday.

The IRB's residency rule – which is two years shorter than its footballing equivalent – has been highlighted again in recent months. Scotland's Dutch wing Tim Visser is similarly qualified, while the Scots may also recruit another South African, Joshua Strauss, via the same process in time for the 2015 World Cup. Ireland used it to field the Pretoria-born Richardt Strauss in the autumn internationals.

Pretorius, born in Nelspruit, came to the UK to study at Hartpury College where he was coached by Allan Lewis, the former Newport coach now running the Welsh academy. He was part of Gloucester's academy but crossed the border in 2009 to join the Blues with the long-term goal of qualifying for Wales, a determination that has grown as he discovered a "rugby culture I've fallen in love with". He took over as Blues captain this season. His club rugby has largely been played at No 8 although he can also feature on the flank.

"Andre is dynamic and brings a bit of X factor and leadership, a key area from the autumn series," said Howley. "We need players to step up and be leaders. There is more to come from him, and he is flexible in terms of where he can play in the back-row."

Competition for places in the back row will be intense with Toby Faletau the man in possession at No 8, two other Blues, national captain Sam Warburton and Navidi, the dynamic Justin Tipuric, Aaron Shingler and Ryan Jones all included.

The latter two have question marks over their fitness for the Ireland match, as do Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard. Doubts over Evans – an "ongoing assessment," according to Howley – and other second row absentees Luke Charteris, Bradley Davies and Alun Wyn Jones, see King, another player born outside Wales, and Coombs called up. King was born in Australia to English parents but grew up in north Wales.

Behind the scrum Howley regards Walker as Britain's "in-form" wing and sees him pushing Scarlet George North and Cardiff Blues' Alex Cuthbert for a starting place.

"Eli absolutely poses a challenge to George and Alex," said Howley. "He is the in-form winger in the UK at this moment. His performances over Christmas were very consistent, particularly in the Heineken Cup. He has the ability to beat a man, good work-rate, and his handling and decision-making on the ball is really good."

Howley has also recruited Mark Jones, capped 47 times by Wales, to his coaching staff. Jones will oversee the backs having impressed in a similar role for the Scarlets.

Wales squad

Forwards T Knoyle (Scarlets; age: 22, caps: 9), M Phillips (Bayonne; 30/72), L Williams (Blues; 23/8), D Biggar (Ospreys; 23/11), J Hook (Perpignan; 27/67), J Davies (Scarlets; 24/31), J Roberts (Blues; 26/48), S Williams (Scarlets; 22/16), A Cuthbert (Blues; 22/13); G North (Scarlets; 20/26), E Walker (Ospreys; 20/0); L Halfpenny (Blues 24/39), L Williams (Scarlets; 21/3), L Byrne (Clermont; 32/46)

Backs S Andrews (Blues; 23/5), C Mitchell (Exeter; 24/11), A Jones (Ospreys; 31/83), P James (Bath; 30/40), G Jenkins (Toulon; 32/94), R Bevington (Ospreys; 24/8), R Hibbard (Ospreys; 29/19), K Owens (Scarlets; 26/10), M Rees (Scarlets; 32/57), R Jones (Ospreys; 31/70), L Reed (Blues; 25/2), I Evans (Ospreys; 28/25), J King (Ospreys; 22/0, A Coombs (Dragons; 28/0), J Turnbull (Scarlets; 24/5), J Navidi (Blues; 22/0, A Shingler (Scarlets; 25/4), J Tipuric (Ospreys; 23/10), S Warburton (Blues; 24/34), T Faletau (Dragons; 22/21), A Pretorius (Blues; 27/0).

Vunipola move upsets Wasps

Billy Vunipola's decision to join rivals Saracens next season has left Wasps' director of rugby, David Young, "bitterly disappointed. The player had been adamant he did not want to leave, but he was under pressure for family reasons to join his brother [Mako]. We did everything in our power to keep Billy."