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Saturday, May 25, 2019
Six Nations 2018: Wales injury woes cannot dent Warren Gatland hopes | Rugby Union | Sport

Full-back Liam Williams is the latest to join a very long line outside the doctor’s office, with an abdominal injury that has bothered him since the autumn internationals.

Fellow Lions Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies will miss the entire championship, while fly-halves Dan Biggar and Rhys Preistland are unavailable for next Saturday’s opener against Scotland in Cardiff.

But while the bodies are piling up, the minds inside the Welsh camp are buzzing on the back of the Scarlets’ superb progress to the Champions Cup knock-out stages, heading a group that also included Toulon and Bath.

It is the first time a Welsh region has qualified in eight years and Gatland said: “It helps massively. You’re not picking up the pieces, trying to build up the confidence of the players. You’ve got players with the confidence and self-belief they can compete with the best in Europe. That breeds confidence in the entire squad.”

The only downside for Gatland is the benefit does not belong to Wales alone – Scotland captain John Barclay has been outstanding in the Scarlets’ elevation to the European elite.

But even though the flanker has insider knowledge of what is likely to be the backbone of the Wales match-day squad, that only makes him wary.

“If they carry over the confidence and energy they’re playing with at my club, they’ll be tricky,” said Barclay. “The Scarlets play a great brand of rugby and Wales are attempting to go down that route of more passing, more width to their game, and some of the Scarlets boys are doing it better than anyone else at the moment.”

Much of that is down to the fly-half Rhys Patchell, but whether he has done enough to persuade Gatland to give him his first start is doubtful and it looks likely Gareth Ainscombe will inherit Biggar’s jersey while Leigh Halfpenny seems a certainty at full-back to take over the kicking duties.

Gatland’s other dilemma is at inside centre – go with the ball-playing skills of Gloucester’s Owen Williams, or the more direct approach of another Scarlet, Hadleigh Parkes, who scored two tries on his debut in the victory over South Africa in December.

“It’s about using your strengths and having the flexibility to play with a ball player or a ball carrier,” said Gatland. “What we learned from the autumn is the need for the ability to play different ways against certain teams, to change it up. We will adapt rather than play the same way through the tournament.”

While Gatland must make do and mend, Gregor Townsend appears to have been blessed with some beginner’s luck for his first Six Nations. 

Scotland’s attacking triumvirate of scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, wing Tommy Seymour and full-back Stuart Hogg are timing their returns to fitness as perfectly as they do their line breaks.

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