Wales at full strength for World Cup quarterfinal
Updated: October 05, 2011, 23:10
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) Veteran flyhalf Stephen Jones has missed selection in Wales' 22-man squad for its Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against Ireland, with coach Warren Gatland opting for Rhys Priestland at No. 10 and the versatile James Hook on the bench.
The Wales team named by Gatland on Thursday contains five changes to the one which beat Fiji 66-0 in its last match in Pool D.
Leigh Halfpenny replaces Lee Byrne at fullback, Jonathan Davies takes over from Scott Williams at outside center and Shane Williams returns from injury to reclaim his place on the left wing.
Flanker Dan Lydiate has also overcome an injury to take over on the blindside from Ryan Jones, who moves to the bench, while Alun Wyn Davies rejoins Luke Charteris in the second row, pushing Bradley Davies into the reserves.
Hook, Williams and Lydiate were all injured during the bruising pool match against Samoa but returned to full training with the Welsh team on Wednesday. Fullback Hook had a shoulder injury, Lydiate an ankle ligament strain and Williams a thigh strain.
The return of those players left coach Gatland in the rare position among the quarterfinalists of having a fully-fit 30-man squad available for selection. Gatland described the selection as one of the most difficult he has made in his four years in charge of Wales.
"Sometimes, in the past, we didn't have a huge playing base in Wales so if you've had three or four key injuries it's not always about who you're going to leave out but who you're going to pick in certain positions,'' he said. "It's a great position to be in to be having to make hard calls about who you leave out.''
The depth available to Wales and to Gatland is emphasized by the omission of Stephen Jones and the relegation of the talented Hook to the reserves bench. It is also marked by the rise within this tournament of Priestland as Wales' starting No. 10.
"I made a comment to the other coaches when we were in Poland (for a pre-World Cup training camp) that this kid's got something a little bit different about him,'' Gatland said. "He's got a calmness, a coolness and he impressed us in preseason, as well.'''
Gatland said Hook's recent injury had worked against his selection in the starting XV.
"Probably the big decision is the fact that he had that (shoulder) injury in the last few weeks. If he'd been fit and available, we may have looked at him either at 10 or 15,'' he said. "You don't want to add too many players that haven't played in a while. A little bit of thinking was in that, as well.''
Gatland asserted what recent observers of the Welsh team have noted, that it is one of the best-balanced teams in the quarterfinals. It leans toward an attacking game but has showed in close matches at this tournament an ability to play with control and more conservatism when weather conditions or other circumstances require it.
"The nice thing is I feel we have a balance we haven't had before,'' Gatland said. "We've got players who can get us across the gain line, we've got pace out wide, we've got a pretty special youngster (winger George North), we've got loose forwards that can carry, loose forwards that can compete on the ball, a couple of big second rowers and a more experienced front row, as well. We feel the balance of this team is the best we've ever had.''
Stephen Jones, Wales' most-capped player with 102 appearances, has been supportive of Gatland's policy of placing faith in young players. He said earlier this week that the youngsters favored by Gatland had added to Wales' sense of self-confidence.
"Team morale is fantastic,'' Jones said. "The younger players have a high rugby ability, and they've gone out there and enjoyed throwing the ball around. They have been top drawer.
"They are fearless. They back themselves, and the fact so many good youngsters have come through, put their hand up and raised the bar has really had a good knock-on effect throughout the whole squad.
"It is certainly the most competitive squad I have been a part of. It is a nice situation for the coaches to be in.''
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Adam Jones, Huw Bennett, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Lloyd Burns, Paul James, Bradley Davies, Ryan Jones, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams.