By Paul Jones
Warren Gatland believes Wales will relish being underdogs for Saturday’s Six Nations opener against Ireland.
The Principality Stadium encounter kicks off Gatland’s second stint as Wales head coach, with his previous reign between 2008 and 2019 yielding four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals.
Ireland will arrive in Cardiff as the world’s top-ranked team following a memorable year when they beat New Zealand twice, South Africa and Australia.
But they have lost their last four Six Nations games in the Welsh capital since defeating Wales 10 years ago.
“I think all the Welsh like to be underdogs,” Gatland said.
“We know how good a team they are. You don’t become the No 1 team in the world without consistency.
“We realise what a challenge that will be, and they have the continuity of being unbeaten in the autumn as well and the confidence that brings.
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“The underdog tag is something I’ve found in the past the Welsh boys tend to relish. They like people writing them off, as it tends to motivate them.
“I am confident we will give a good account of ourselves on Saturday and give a good performance.”
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny will make his first Wales start for 19 months, having last featured in the line-up when Wales beat Canada during their 2021 summer internationals.
He is joined in the back-three by Josh Adams and Rio Dyer, while Gatland has selected six Ospreys forwards, plus centre Joe Hawkins, with Saracens’ Nick Tompkins missing out.
Ospreys scrum-half Rhys Webb is set for a first Wales appearance since November 2020 after being named on the replacements’ bench, where there are roles for Exeter lock Dafydd Jenkins, Webb’s regional team half-back partner Owen Williams and hooker Scott Baldwin.
Leicester flanker Tommy Reffell is also among the substitutes, with Gatland selecting a starting back-row of Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.
Gatland added: “Leigh Halfpenny has a little bit of a tight hip, so we kept him out of this morning’s session.
“He will train this afternoon. He has been one of the top defensive full-backs in world rugby for a number of years. It’s good to see him back. We had a really good selection meeting last night and some really robust debate.
Mae Warren Gatland yn eithaf cyfforddus o fod yn 'underdog' yn y gêm fawr yn erbyn y Gwyddelod.
"..the Welsh boys tend to relish and they like people writing them off." 👊 #GuinnessSixNations | @S4Cchwaraeon pic.twitter.com/1UGQKhlMoN
— S4C Rygbi (@S4CRygbi) January 31, 2023
“Kicking off this first game, we’re looking for some experience and continuity. The message to the squad is that people will get an opportunity in this Six Nations.
“We want to do well in this Six Nations, but we have to think long-term about the next seven or eight months in terms of the development of guys who haven’t had much Test rugby and how we get them ready for [the World Cup in] France.”
Offering a bucket-load of experience will be lock and former Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, who wins his 156th Wales cap at the age of 37.
“I sat down with Alun Wyn and had a good discussion about where he is, and I just said we need to bring some of the other second rows on as well and give them some game time going forward,” Gatland said.
“He is well aware of that. He has been fantastic in the past week or so in terms of his voice and experience, and I want those younger second-rows to learn from that experience.
“I have always been a great admirer of his, but we have got to go through the process of some transition.”
The Ireland full-back Hugo Keenan admits Ireland’s performances must vastly improve if they are to realise their potential by becoming Six Nations champions.
🏴 Fifteen years after naming his first Wales squad for the #GuinnessSixNations, Warren Gatland is back at it for @WelshRugbyUnion
Dyma tîm Cymru ⬇️#AwakenAnticipation pic.twitter.com/waW3Tj2N15
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 31, 2023
Keenan is among the Irish contingent who have yet to taste Six Nations glory and believes better displays are required to plug the gap on his CV, beginning in Wales.
“That’s what we’re all chasing,” he said of the title, according to the Irish Mirror.
“I’ve never experienced it. I know some of the lads have from the 2018 side, and we’re all pretty determined to do it again and I think it’s taking things one game at a time.
“That’s the challenge, that’s the goal the coaches are setting and we’re setting for ourselves. I think we have the capabilities to, so it’s just about performing individually and collectively.
“To go and compete in the Six Nations, if we’re talking about winning the championship and going to Wales and beating them, we’re going to have to be a lot better than in the autumn.”