North, Hibbard recalled as Gatland makes big statement
Wales made some statement yesterday morning when announcing their squad to play England in the Six Nations opener in Cardiff on Friday two days ahead of schedule.
It screamed of stability and confidence, and of a deliberate attempt to contrast with England's uncertainty.
Head coach Warren Gatland denied that mind games were at work, instead pointing out that leaks to the press were a concern once the players had been informed of their selections but it did not really matter what he said.
The statement had been made. The squad revealed was utterly predictable - "It was not a hard side to pick", Gatland said. There are just two changes from the side that beat South Africa last autumn, with George North and Richard Hibbard returning for Liam Williams and Scott Baldwin. North was injured for that match and Hibbard was unavailable because the Test fell outside the official window.
Winger/full-back Williams has been in fine form, but Gatland was never going to omit No 15 Leigh Halfpenny - "He is the best goal-kicker in world rugby", he said - or wingers North and Alex Cuthbert, even if there has been some concern over the recent form of those two.
North has been excellent for Northampton but poor for Wales, while Cuthbert has been distracted at Cardiff Blues. He wants to leave but has been told he must see out his contract that ends at the end of next season.
"We had a good chat to George," Gatland said. "We don't think he has played that well in the Welsh jersey in the last few games, so there is a lot of pressure and expectation on him to perform.
"But one of the things he has done for Wales is that he has scored tries. He does have that X-factor. If he gets lots of touches and his work rate is high, he will create something. We are looking for a big performance from him."
Remarkably, Wales have no injury worries at all, with Jonathan Davies (tight glute) apparently fine.
"Sometimes you just need a bit of luck. They (England) are going through a period where they have a lot of injuries, but probably long-term they will look back and say it was pretty beneficial in terms of depth and strength of squad for the World Cup. That's the way I would look at it anyway." Gatland was asked if he felt any sympathy for the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster.
"No, not really," he said with a laugh. "It is still going to be a really strong squad he picks." Not, however, as strong or as settled as Wales'. That was the unspoken but booming message. (© Daily Telegraph, London)