Wales kick-off their Six Nations campaign against Scotland in a month’s time, looking to improve on a mixed autumn and better a disappointing 2017 Six Nations which saw them finish in fifth place.
Injuries have hit the Welsh camp hard with the likes of Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Jake Ball out for the whole of the tournament and Taulupe Faletau, Hallam Amos and Dan Lydiate out of the Scotland game, while Ross Moriarty has only played one game this season since injuring his back in the Lions opening tour match back in June.
In the back-three Saracens winger, Liam Williams who has been out of action since injuring his abdomen against Georgia in November but who is expected back in the next couple of weeks starts at 15 in place of the Scarlets’ Leigh Halfpenny.
Forty-five times-capped Williams offers a real attacking threat at full-back with his pace and excellent running angles in contrast to Halfpenny, who while being solid in defence and excellent positionally, offers little in the attack at 15.
With exciting Dragons winger Hallam Amos, who enjoyed a fine autumn series, out of the tournament opener with an ankle injury, we plump for Halfpenny at 14. The 29-year-old started his career out wide and burst onto the international scene in that position, and would be able to offer more of an attacking threat out wide.
Scarlets flyer Steff Evans retains his place at left wing despite a challenging November campaign where he struggled defensively. But the 23-year-old who touched down against Australia showed enough glimpses of his huge talent during the month to show that he still has a big future at international level.
George North was this week ruled out for a month after picking up an injury in his comeback game against Harlequins. The injury effectively ruling him out of the Scotland game.
But even if the Saints winger had been fit, Evans would still have got our vote.
In midfield, Gloucester’s Owen Williams comes in at 12, having impressed against Australia and New Zealand with his slick distribution skills and solid defence. With his former Scarlets teammate Scott Williams who picked up tries against New Zealand and South Africa and who enjoyed a solid autumn, partnering him at 13.
Scarlets pivot Rhys Patchell, who controlled things nicely at ten after coming on against the Springboks, gets the nod at ten over Dan Biggar. Patchell offers more of an attacking threat than Biggar – playing flatter and asking more questions of opposition defences. The 24-year-old is also better at getting his backline moving than Biggar and fits better into Wales’ new expansive, ball in hand game.
Toulon-bound Rhys Webb, who will be unavailable for Wales after this season, is at nine with the Lions and Ospreys star still undoubtedly Wales’ best scrum-half.
Up front, Samson Lee will make his comeback against the Dragons this Friday after being out of action since October with a recurrence of an Achilles injury.
The 25-year-old will bolster a scrum which struggled in November.
With Scarlets lock Jake Ball out of the tournament with a dislocated shoulder, exciting Blues youngster Seb Davies partners skipper Alun Wyn Jones in the second-row.
Justin Tipuric starts at seven after missing nearly the whole of the autumn Tests with a thigh injury.
While on the bench, Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis offer cover at hooker, loosehead and tighthead respectively. In-form Ospreys veteran Bradley Davies covers lock while uncapped Scarlets openside James Davies covers the back-row.
Behind the scrum, Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar offer cover at nine and ten with Ospreys youngster Owen Watkin covering the midfield.
Here’s the team we think Warren Gatland should pick for next month’s tournament opener in Cardiff on February 6:
15. Liam Williams
14. Leigh Halfpenny
13. Scott Williams
12. Owen Williams
11. Steff Evans
10. Rhys Patchell
9. Rhys Webb
1. Rob Evans
2. Ken Owens
3. Samson Lee
4. Seb Davies
5. Alun Wyn Jones (Captain)
6. Aaron Shingler
7. Justin Tipuric
8. Josh Navidi
16. Elliot Dee
17. Wyn Jones
18. Tomas Francis
19. Bradley Davies
20. James Davies
21. Dan Biggar
22. Gareth Davies
23. Owen Watkin
Hefin Jones, Pundit Arena