Wales turn to youth for Six Nations and beyond

Gatland makes surprise selections as he builds a squad for 2011 World Cup
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The Independent Online

The last thing England want to see when Wales arrive at Twickenham for the opening match of the Six Nations campaign is a 21st century version of Keith Jarrett, who, as an 18-year-old, famously beat them all on his own on his international debut in 1967. Unnervingly for Martin Johnson and his colleagues, the ghost of humiliation past suddenly materialised yesterday when the Red Dragon coaching team named two uncapped and unknown teenagers, Tom Prydie and Kristian Phillips, in a 35-strong squad for the tournament, which begins early next month.

Neither newcomer has much chance of featuring: both are listed as wings, although the strapping 17-year-old Prydie is considered equally adept at full-back, and with the likes of Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Tom James ahead of them in the pecking order, opportunities will be strictly limited. But Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, clearly has an eye on both as potential candidates for the 2011 World Cup, and with good reason. Phillips recently scored five tries in a single game for Neath while Prydie, currently a schoolboy in Porthcawl, is precocious enough to have played senior rugby for Ospreys as long ago as last summer.

"We are at the beginning of our countdown to the World Cup and we think it's right to bring in some youngsters capable of putting pressure on senior players and increasing our strength in depth," Gatland explained. "These two are very young and realistically, they're going to find it difficult to get themselves involved in selection for the Six Nations. But Halfpenny is likely to miss our summer trip to New Zealand because he needs some tidying-up surgery on his shoulder, so opportunities are there."

Of more immediate interest to England ahead of what promises to be a profoundly neurotic afternoon of thud and blunder – "It's a huge game for both sides, because victory will strengthen confidence and build momentum while defeat will do the opposite," admitted Gatland – was the appearance of two other uncapped players, the Cardiff Blues scrum-half Richie Rees and the Saracens prop Rhys Gill. Of these, Rees has the best chance of breaking into the match-day squad for Twickenham.

"Richie's service is good, he's a threat around the fringes and there's some physicality about him," said Gatland, who finds himself without two Lions half-backs: last summer's version, Mike Phillips, who has been injured for months, and the 2005 vintage, Dwayne Peel, who picked up a groin injury on Heineken Cup duty last weekend and will miss the entire competition. Gatland indicated that Rees's performance against Peel during the Blues-Sale match on Saturday would have propelled him into the squad even if the latter had emerged from the contest unscathed.

Rees finds himself in the mix with Martin Roberts of Scarlets, the front-runner for the starting place on 6 February, and Gareth Cooper, who returned to Wales last summer after a stint with Gloucester but is struggling for form at the Blues. At this stage, the smart money is on Rees to beat Cooper to a place on the bench.

There were no particular shocks in the coach's selection, apart from the fast-tracking of the two kindergarten kids. Ryan Jones, the Ospreys No 8, will continue as captain and with the return from injury of Lee Byrne, the first-choice full back, and Adam Jones, such an important figure at tight-head prop, Wales will not be short of class when they embark upon the most important business of the season. Byrne is the only specialist No 15 in the 35, but Gatland sees James Hook as his natural cover. Hook is struggling for game time at outside-half because of Dan Biggar's increasingly mature performances as the Ospreys' pivot.

Gatland expects the England game to be claustrophobic in the extreme. "Games are dominated by the boot at the moment – it's all kick and clatter," said the New Zealander. "The statistics show that the teams kicking most are the ones winning the matches and I'm not alone in thinking that the spectacle has been a little disappointing this season. But the situation is as it is and we'll be working hard on improving the aspects of our game most relevant to the way it is being played.

"I think the most important thing is for us to become more comfortable with being favourites for matches. As an All Black, I learned how to respond in the right way to criticism and defeat. In Wales, there's this cultural thing about thriving on being underdogs. We have to be bolder in talking about winning and expecting to win. It's where Ireland have made such strides in recent seasons. When I look at us, we're better than them physically and in terms of skill. Are we tougher mentally, though? Probably not, and that's the thing we have to address."

2010 Six Nations: Wales squad

*Backs: D Biggar, A Bishop, L Byrne (all Ospreys), G Cooper (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), L Halfpenny (Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), T James (Blues), S Jones (Scarlets), K Phillips, T Prydie (both Ospreys), R Rees, J Roberts (both Blues), M Roberts (Scarlets), T Shanklin (Blues), S Williams (Ospreys).

*Forwards: H Bennett (Ospreys), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), B Davies (Blues), R Gill (Saracens), I Gough, P James (both Ospreys), G Jenkins (Blues), A Jones, AW Jones (both Ospreys), D Jones (Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), E Lewis-Roberts (Sale) , D Lydiate (Dragons), A Powell (Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), J Thomas (Ospreys), S Warburton, G Williams, M Williams (all Blues).

Target Twickenham Who will wear No 9 shirt?

Martin Roberts

The inexperienced half-back from Aberdare in the South Wales valleys has only three caps to his name, yet suddenly finds himself in pole position to start the game against England on 6 February. The slightest of the three at just over 12st, he still asks questions around the fringes.

Richie Rees

The latest candidate to perform the role played with such distinction by Gareth Edwards, Terry Holmes and the rest. The 26-year-old from Swansea has caught the eye more than once for Cardiff Blues this season and is seen as a genuine contender to start for Wales at Twickenham.

Gareth Cooper

There was a time during his Premiership spell at Bath when Cooper looked a world-beater in the making: clever, instinctive and blindingly quick. Injury problems pulled him up short and while he has 44 caps to his name, he is not the force of yore.