Wednesday 13 December 2017

Wales hand Jones captain's armband while Warburton recovers his 'mojo'

Step up: Alun Wyn Jones. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Step up: Alun Wyn Jones. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Mick Cleary

Wales head coach Rob Howley has declared the start of a new era after demoting Sam Warburton to the ranks after six years as captain in favour of lock Alun Wyn Jones, and naming seven uncapped players in a 36-man squad for the Six Nations Championship.

Howley has taken the captaincy away from Warburton following a record 49-game run so that he might regain "his mojo" with no guarantees that he will retain his place in the match-day squad.

Even though Wales's record was passable in November with three wins from four, there was a hangdog air about the side and Howley has done his best to ensure that there is a spring in the step as the squad head to Rome for their opening match on February 5.

With two young flankers, Wasps' Thomas Young and Olly Cracknell of the Ospreys, named for the first time in the elite squad, competition in the back-row is fierce.

Howley acknowledged that Warburton faces the toughest fight of his career. "Over the last six years Sam has concentrated on being Wales captain and maybe it's about being selfish now and looking after Sam Warburton," he said. "It's time that he just looks after himself and be the best Sam Warburton.

"With the talent we have got in the back-row we just feel that it is right for Sam to concentrate on being the best that he can be to get his mojo back and play to the best of his ability."

Howley had discussions with Warburton during the autumn about switching from openside to blindside and sat down with him again on Monday to explain the captaincy decision. The interim head coach also consulted Warren Gatland, on sabbatical with the Lions, who backed the call.

The passing of the metaphorical armband is no surprise given the regard in which Jones is held, Howley stating that "he is the first name on the team-sheet". The Ospreys lock has led his country five times and also steered the Lions to a series victory in the third Test against Australia in Sydney in the absence of the injured Paul O'Connell.

The Welsh management have no doubts that Jones will set the right upbeat tone, defence coach Shaun Edwards likening his influence to that of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio.

"Alun Wyn Jones is a man you want to follow into battle," said Edwards. "He's an incredible athlete and he has a great rugby brain as well."

"To have such size, power and speed and also be such an intelligent rugby player means he has the full box of tricks.

"Alun is undoubtedly world-class and has such a competitive edge like all the best captains."

Wales have also called up Thomas Young, son of Wasps' director of rugby, Dai, after a succession of man-of-the-match performances for his club.

The other uncapped players are Owen Williams (Leicester), Ashton Hewitt (Dragons), Steffan Evans (Scarlets), Rory Thornton (Ospreys) and Aled Davies (Scarlets), adding what Howley calls "flavour of freshness" to the squad. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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