Gatland opts for experience against Boks
Warren Gatland has opted for experienced flyhalf Stephen Jones over James Hook to spearhead Wales’ assault on world champions South Africa in their opening Test in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Jones made his Test debut in Wales’ record 96-13 defeat to the Springboks in 1998 and is embarking on his third tour of South Africa.
Hook was in possession of the number 10 jersey when Wales completed the Grand Slam against France in March, but the Ospreys star has been demoted to the bench this time.
The rivals have been locked in a fierce battle for the flyhalf duties and head coach Gatland, who unveiled his team four days ahead of schedule on Sunday, admitted it had been a tough call.
Gatland said: “We are lucky to have two players of the calibre of Stephen Jones and James Hook competing for the same position.
“I’m very comfortable with the balance of our backline heading into this game.”
Dafydd Jones will win his 13th cap, with Jonathan Thomas retained on the blindside and skipper Ryan Jones continuing at number eight.
Gatland said: “I have named Dafydd Jones at openside and this is a great opportunity for him to deliver for Wales again.
“With Jonathan Thomas at number six we have two flankers with pace and genuine footballing skills.”
Gatland has retained the core of his Grand Slam-winning tight five in Gethin Jenkins, Mathew Rees, Adam Jones, Ian Gough and Alun Wyn Jones.
Jamie Roberts’s physical presence has won him the nod at fullback, with Morgan Stoddart settling for a place among the substitutes.
Gatland said: “Jamie is big, fast and strong enough to counter the attacking force the world champions will throw against us.”
Roberts links up with Mark Jones and Wales’ top try-scorer, Shane Williams, in the back three, while Tom Shanklin and Sonny Parker form a robust midfield.
Gloucester scrumhalf Gareth Cooper gets a chance to impress after Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel became unavailable for the tour.
Cooper has dropped down the pecking order over the past two seasons—his last Test was against Japan last year.
Wales have beaten the Springboks just once in 20 attempts, but Gatland is determined his side will return home with their reputations enhanced.
“Training has been going exceptionally well since we arrived on Friday, so we have decided to name the team early,” he said.
“This gives us the longest possible preparation time with the starting side before next Saturday.
“We know the size of the challenge we face because we are playing the world champions on their home turf where Wales have never won.
“This is an important tour for this squad and we are determined to leave South Africa having earned the respect of the Springboks.”
Team: Jamie Roberts (Cardiff); Mark Jones (Llanelli), Tom Shanklin (Cardiff), Sonny Parker (Ospreys), Shane Williams (Ospreys); Stephen Jones (Llanelli), Gareth Cooper (Gloucester); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff), Matthew Rees (Llanelli), Adam Jones (Ospreys); Ian Gough (Ospreys), Alun-Wwn Jones (Ospreys); Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys), Dafydd Jones (Llanelli), Ryan Jones (Ospreys, captain) Replacements: Duncan Jones (Ospreys), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Gareth Delve (Gloucester), Warren Fury (London Irish), James Hook (Ospreys), Morgan Stoddart (Llanelli).—AFP.