Liam Williams and George North given chance to win his Wales places back as Premiership returns to centre stage

Wales backs have struggled with injury over the course fo the Six Nations so far but have the chance to impress Warren Gatland ahead of next weekend's clash with Ireland

Sam Peters
Friday 16 February 2018 19:31
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Liam Williams needs to prove his fitness to Warren Gatland to win his Wales place back
Liam Williams needs to prove his fitness to Warren Gatland to win his Wales place back

Warren Gatland will have eyes on Salford on Friday night as Liam Williams looks to prove his Six Nations fitness when Saracens take on Sale in the Aviva Premiership.

The British and Irish Lions winger has struggled to shake off the abdominal injury he suffered last November but continues on the comeback trail after playing 60 minutes of Saracens 25-3 win over Newcastle last Saturday.

With early fears Williams may require surgery seemingly receding, the 26-year-old’s return to international readiness would be a huge boost for Wales as they look to put last Saturday’s agonising 12-6 loss to Eddie Jones’s team behind them.

It will also provide a lift for a Saracens outfit shorn of Test stars Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Richard Wigglesworth and George Kruis, which may have won its last four Premiership outings but faces a notoriously stubborn Sharks side at the AJ Bell Stadium.

If Williams can prove his fitness to face Ireland in Dublin, he will contribute to a welcome selection headache for Gatland ahead of next Saturday’s trip to face England’s main title rivals Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. A bloody nose for Joe Schmidt’s side would do wonders for Wales’ own title hopes.

With first-choice full-back Leigh Halfpenny set to return from the foot infection which ruled him out of Saturday’s loss to England and George North starting for Northampton Saints this weekend after producing an encouraging second-half cameo off the bench at Twickenham, Gatland’s back-three options are increasingly plentiful ahead of the visit to Dublin.

Gatland is set to name his side on Tuesday when Halfpenny is expected to return in place of Gareth Anscombe at full-back, while North and Williams are putting pressure on current wing incumbents Steff Evans and Josh Adams with the Worcester youngster’s place under most threat.

With Hallam Amos also fit again, Gatland finds himself with plenty of attacking options ahead of the must-win visit to the Aviva Stadium, where his side have won twice and drawn once in their past four visits.

It was feared Williams needed surgery but he starts for Saracens on Friday night

But it is Williams who he will be paying closest attention to after the former Scarlets’ magnificent contribution to last summer’s drawn Test series between the Lions and New Zealand marked him out as one of the world’s most dangerous attacking threats.

His run out at the AJ Bell Stadium will be closely monitored.

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Elsewhere in the Premiership this weekend struggling Harlequins travel to fellow underperformers Leicester on Saturday in a game which both sides desperately need to win to keep alive any realistic hopes of reaching the play-offs. It may be eighth against ninth but no Premiership game has had more riding on it this season.

Quins, who recently extended director of rugby John Kingston’s contract by two years but have been dogged by disciplinary issues on and off the field this season, currently lie ninth, one place below Matt O’Connor’s Tigers.

Gatland will have a close eye on his players in the Premiership this weekend

Last weekend’s humiliating 44-22 defeat by Wasps, who played with 14 men for more than 60 minutes after Kyle Eastmond was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Marcus Smith, led Kingston to heavily criticise his underperforming players.

Kingston said: “We’ve let our supporters and our families down as there was a half-empty stadium with 20 minutes to go and I let the players know my feelings in the changing rooms.”

The Londoners have not won at Welford Road since 2013 and Leicester will be “desperate” to record only their second win in seven Premiership outings. The East Midlander’s proud record of reaching the play-offs every year since the start of the current league format has never been under greater threat.

Their defeat by Gloucester last weekend left the 10-time winners of English rugby’s top league languishing nine points behind the Cherry and Whites, who currently occupy the last play-off spot with eight rounds to play.

Kingston was furious with his side's performance last week 

With long-serving director of rugby Richard Cockerill sacked last season, there is no hiding these are difficult times indeed for the Welford Road faithful.

“We are a desperate side this weekend,” said Kiwi flanker Brendon O’Connor. “We are desperate to win and get that feeling back to build a run until the end of the season.”

Bath will be looking to make it five wins in succession on Friday night when they travel to Kingston Park to face Newcastle while resurgent Northampton host bottom club London Irish on Saturday.

Worcester will be looking to make it five Premiership wins from eight games when they host fourth-placed Gloucester on Saturday while champions Exeter travel to in-form Wasps on Sunday.

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