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Sport Sean Holley's Wales team for Six Nations opener includes big calls as Owen Watkin and Adam Beard start but Rees-Zammit on the bench

00:05  02 february  2021
00:05  02 february  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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Wayne Pivac faces a number of key selections when he sits down to pick his Wales team to face Ireland in Sunday's Six Nations clash in Cardiff.

It's a game which could set the tone for the whole tournament for Pivac and his players.

We thought we'd jump in first and ask Sean Holley to name the side he would choose for the encounter at the Principality Stadium.

The ex-Ospreys coach, part of the Wales coaching set-up during the Lions year of 2009, makes his calls from the 36-man squad Pivac announced in January.

Here's what he came up with, in his own words...

"It’s like being asked to play a game of cards after being given someone else’s hand, with the brief being to name a Wales side to face Ireland from the squad Wayne Pivac has chosen for the Six Nations.

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"But, still, let’s have a crack.

"For me, the challenge Wales’ coach will face this week will be to strike a balance between playing those who’ve had a fair bit of rugby of late and bringing others up to speed by choosing them early in the tournament so they can bank game time.

"It goes without saying such a difficult juggling of resources takes place against the backdrop of trying to win a Test match.

"I’ve gone for an experienced team that includes plenty of guys who are on form.

"It’s a side I’d have a fair degree of faith in."

15. Leigh Halfpenny

Who else could we play here given Liam Williams isn’t in the picture for this weekend (due to a suspension for a red card)?

We are going to see a box-kick frenzy from Ireland, with bombs raining down.

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The vastly experienced Halfpenny reads play well and covers the space superbly in the back three.

He’s in.

Of course he is.

14. George North

There are remote tribes in the Amazon rainforest who might just have heard that George North’s been banging in some quality displays for his region recently.

It’s been great to see.

His confidence is back and he’s not only running hard with the ball but also getting involved in other areas — only five players in the entire Guinness PRO14 have made more turnovers than the big man this season.

I like the way he’s impacting games.

So, yes, he’s one of my wings.

13. Jonathan Davies

Wales have to play this guy into form.

Everyone knows what he’s capable of when at his best. He’s a world-class operator who fronts up in defence and poses a threat in attack.

The only way to get him back to his best is to play him.

The key is, though, that we have people around him who are performing well.

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Which leads nicely onto my next selection.

12. Owen Watkin

My guess is Wayne Pivac will opt for Johnny Williams to face Ireland. The Scarlet is a good player who impressed in the autumn, but he’s not been playing in a form team.

By contrast, Owen Watkin has been winning and that matters in terms of confidence.

For me, the young Osprey is underrated.

Wales are likely to have a formidable centre pairing coming at them – probably Rob Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, while Ireland have Bundee Aki as well – but Watkin is good in defence. He has that rip technique, he’s solid and doesn’t make many mistakes. In attack, he has a step and offers a kicking option.

He’ll be feeling good about himself right now.


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That’s not a small consideration.

11. Josh Adams

I don’t think he’s done anything to justify being dropped.

It may be hard on Louis Rees-Zammit, but I’d put the youngster on the bench, with George North covering centre.

10. Dan Biggar

He hasn’t been making headlines in Wales since his move to England, but, to be fair, Daniel has been consistently good for Northampton Saints.

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As I’ve already said, Ireland are likely to hoist the ball in the air a fair bit and Daniel is one of the best in the world in terms of collecting high kicks.

He can do so much else, too.

Jarrod Evans features on bench for me, allowing him to grow into the tournament.

9. Tomos Williams

A tight call here, with Tomos Williams edging out Gareth Davies by the thickness of a cigarette paper.

He shaded the decision with his recent performances for Cardiff Blues against the Scarlets.

I like the way he speeds the game up.

Of course, Davies is a threat himself, but Williams is kicking better. It’s a 50-50 call and it wouldn’t surprise me if Pivac opts for Gareth Davies.

A word on Rhys Webb.

Arguably, he’s still the best No. 9 in Wales. His performance out in Connacht the weekend before last suggested as much, and he’s played really well in other games this season. I understand you have to look to the future, but you have to win as well. Rhys is a Test animal. He’ll be back.

1. Wyn Jones

He takes this spot because he’s been playing and he’s our best scrummaging loose-head. He’s solid in the set-piece and hard-working around the field.

2. Ken Owens

I saw enough in his 30 minutes against Cardiff Blues the other week to tell me the Sheriff is fit and ready to go. Wales need him back: he’s a start-up player who makes an impact and he’ll be able to give Wayne a good hour.

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Another benefit from his return could be that the Wales line-out functions better.

3. Tomas Francis

It’s the same here as it is with Wyn Jones. Francis has shown he can scrummage at Test level and defend, too.

Wales have to control Ireland’s maul and they need willing and able defenders. The Exeter Chief has shown he’s up to the job at this level.

4. Adam Beard

Not everyone will agree with this one, but Beard has had a fine few months at the Ospreys. I like the way he responded after being dropped for the autumn Tests.

He didn’t moan about his situation. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and threw himself into helping the team he plays for week-in, week-out. It showed an admirable maturity.

In the absence of Alun Wyn Jones, he had to call the line-outs and be the guy others rallied around at the heart of the pack, a leader pointing the way.

In short, he’s grown as a player and probably as a person.

Where he’s especially good is at defensive mauls where Ireland will be coming for Wales.

But he’s also been doing well around the field and at set-pieces for the Ospreys.

I just think he has a point of difference that complements my selection at No. 5.

5. Alun Wyn Jones

Much like they need to do with Ken Owens, Wales need to get this guy up to speed after his injury layoff.

The old warrior is a player who influences others and he’s capable of producing huge performances himself.

6. Dan Lydiate

There’ll be people who say Dan Lydiate isn’t the long-term answer — fair enough.

But we need to look after today as well as tomorrow.

Josh Navidi hasn’t had enough game-time to start a Test and Wales appear to be looking at Aaron Wainwright as a No. 8.

Lydiate is playing well, has vast experience and is a guy who’s going to give you 20 tackles a game.

7. Justin Tipuric

There’s not much more to say about Tips.

He’s just a wonderful rugby player.

8. Taulupe Faletau

I’m not seeing enough for anyone to challenge him.

He finished the autumn Tests in form and Wales need to hope he picks up where he left off.

I do have concerns about a lack of rugby for Toby, Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones, but they’re in the squad and they’re leaders. Wales need to get them moving up the gears as quickly as possible.

I’ve tried to pick boys around them who are in form and who’ve been playing a fair bit in recent times.

We saw what Faletau could do against Italy in the autumn. What Wayne Pivac would do for some of that this weekend.

Bench: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Jake Ball, Josh Navidi, Gareth Davies, Jarrod Evans, Louis Rees-Zammit.

I’ve gone for impact here.

There’s pace and game-breaking quality in the backs and all my forwards are capable of making their presence felt as the game comes to the boil.

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