Warren Gatland: We have to make sure that we deal with Ireland's kicking game
Published 03/02/2016 | 16:51
Wales boss Warren Gatland has hailed Tom James' revival as the wing prepares to end a five-year Test exile during the opening weekend of this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship.
James, who has won 10 caps, returns to the international arena when Wales tackle Ireland at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on Sunday, having last represented his country against New Zealand in November 2010.
A spell with Aviva Premiership club Exeter helped the transformation process, and since rejoining Cardiff Blues he has maintained prodigious try-scoring form on domestic and European stages.
Earlier in 2010, James briefly withdrew himself from Wales squad activity ahead of a Six Nations finale against Italy after being overlooked for selection.
But Gatland is relishing the 28-year-old's return as Wales begin their quest for a possible fourth Six Nations title of his coaching reign.
"If you look back at the history of it, he was in the Welsh goldfish bowl," Gatland said, of James.
"He needed to get out, and he went out to play for Exeter in the Premiership and had some excellent form there.
"I think he has grown up and matured fantastically well as a person and a player.
"He has come back, and his form for the Blues has been outstanding, so he has been selected on merit.
"He was unlucky not to be involved at the (2015) World Cup due to injuries. His form has been excellent, and he deserves his opportunity to come back into the Welsh team."
Gatland has also handed starts to the likes of Blues full-back Gareth Anscombe, Scarlets prop Rob Evans and Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric, with Wales captain Sam Warburton moving from openside to blindside flanker in Dublin and a powerful bench featuring British and Irish Lions trio Alex Cuthbert, Gethin Jenkins and Dan Lydiate.
Centre Jonathan Davies, who missed the World Cup last autumn because of a knee ligament injury, is reunited in midfield with Jamie Roberts.
But there is no place in the match-day 23 for full-back Liam Williams, who began his comeback from a foot injury by playing 60 minutes for the Scarlets last Saturday, having been sidelined since the World Cup.
Lydiate, meanwhile, has been out for just over a month with a shoulder/neck problem, but Tipuric's outstanding form for the Ospreys probably demanded inclusion anyway, and Warburton is no stranger to the blindside role.
Gatland admitted that French referee Jerome Garces' appointment for the Ireland encounter had been factored into his front-row thinking.
Garces refereed Wales twice last year against England - 119 times-capped Jenkins started both games - and the official often penalised the Welsh scrum.
Asked whether Garces' handling of the scrum had been a consideration, Gatland added: "It was part of the conscious decision in terms of that selection.
"But I thought he was one of the best referees in the World Cup. The way he refereed the breakdown was outstanding, and I think that he just referees what's in front of him.
"We were very pleased with the way he handled the breakdown during the World Cup, and his control in that area. He did penalise us a few times at scrum-time, but we were very happy with his control of the game.
"Rob (Evans) has played well for us before, and he deserves a chance looking ahead to the next few years.
"We have a couple of looseheads who have been around a long time and have given brilliant service, but how much longer they will be involved internationally, we are not too sure. We are giving Rob an opportunity, looking forward to 2019."
Assessing Ireland's challenge, meanwhile, Gatland added: "I suppose the template for them is the way they played against us two years ago when we went to the Aviva Stadium and they played us off the park. We were well-beaten that day.
"They dominated territory and possession, and we didn't handle their kicking game. We are expecting the same again from them a little bit because it has been very successful, so we've got to make sure we handle that as a team.
"They (Ireland) have won the championship in the last two years, and we respect them tremendously as a team. They are going to be particularly tough at home. For both teams, this opening game of the tournament is really important.
"There is a lot of pressure in professional sport to perform and get results, and we want to start this tournament well. If we can win, it will hopefully put us in a positive step for the rest of the tournament."