Six Nations 2023 – Halfpenny starts for Wales against Ireland

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Leigh Halfpenny is set to make his first Wales start for 19 months in Saturday’s Six Nations opener against Ireland in Cardiff.

The Scarlets full-back, 34, who has returned from a serious knee injury, is named with Liam Williams missing out.

Centre Joe Hawkins makes his championship debut alongside Ospreys team-mate George North.

Ken Owens captains Wales for the first time on his 87th cap and is one of only two forwards not from the Ospreys.

They include a return to the starting team for 37-year-old Alun Wyn Jones while flanker Jac Morgan, with four tries in his last two Tests, gets the nod at blind-side in a back row completed by British and Irish Lions Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

Eight of the starting team are aged 30 or over.

However Dragons wing Rio Dyer, who scored tries against Australia and New Zealand in the autumn, replaces the injured Louis Rees-Zammit, ahead of the more experienced Alex Cuthbert who is among the replacements.

And the inclusion of 20-year-old Hawkins, ahead of Nick Tompkins, is a nod to the future with the 2023 World Cup on the horizon.

Head coach Warren Gatland said: “There’s a mixture of experience [and] younger players.

“We’ve picked Joe at 12. He’s a lovely footballer with some great skills. I thought for his first cap he was outstanding so we’ve given him another opportunity.

“There’s some real competition in the midfield at the moment, so I’m really excited about that.

“We were conscious as well picking the bench. We think we’ve got a bench that can come on and have an impact.”

Halfpenny has played once for Wales since he was carried off against Canada in November 2021, as a replacement in the loss to Georgia in November.

He missed training on Tuesday morning with a hip complaint, but was due to train in the afternoon, while Gatland confirmed Liam Williams was available for selection.

“Liam hasn’t had a lot of rugby. We want to give him some more training time with the team, but there’s no doubt he will feature [in the Six Nations] at some point,” said Gatland.

“We ran with Josh Adams and Liam covering full-back [so] if something does happen to Leigh then we’ll make a decision.”

Old guard

Gatland had previously revealed he had considered dropping many of the older players for this tournament.

But Halfpenny is not the only old face recalled by a coach taking charge of Wales for the first time since the 2019 World Cup.

Rhys Webb, 34, is is among the replacements after a 16-month absence following his move to France and subsequent return.

It is more than six years since Owen Williams, 30, and Scott Baldwin, 34, last played international rugby, but both are also named on the bench after impressing this season with the Ospreys, who make up 12 of the match-day 23.

At the other end of the scale, Exeter Chiefs forward Dafydd Jenkins and Leicester Tigers flanker Tommy Reffell are set to make their Six Nations debuts as replacements.

Wales have only beaten Ireland once in their past six meetings with Andy Farrell’s side ranked number one in the world.

Gatland said: “Ireland are going to be coming here with a lot of confidence. You don’t become the number one team in the world without having some pretty consistent performances.

“We know how good they are and we’re expecting a really tough contest. It’s important that we start well, but we need to be in the game at the last 20 minutes.

“We’ve only had a couple of weeks together, but I’m confident the guys will give a good account of themselves. They’re pretty excited about playing this first game at home.”

Wales: Halfpenny; Adams, North, Hawkins, Dyer; Biggar, T Williams; G Thomas, Owens (capt), Francis, Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Morgan, Tipuric, Faletau.

Replacements: Baldwin, Carre, Lewis, Jenkins, Reffell, Webb, O Williams, Cuthbert.

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