Six Nations: Wales hand Leigh Halfpenny first start in 19 months for Ireland opener
Wales have named their team to face Ireland in the opening game of the Six Nations, with Leigh Halpenny earning a first start since 2021.
Halfpenny, who featured as a replacement against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Series, is handed a starting place by returning head coach Warren Gatland.
He joins Rio Dyer and Josh Adams in the back three while Joe Hawkins makes his Six Nations bow at inside centre alongside George North in the midfield.
Dan Biggar is back at fly-half
Dan Biggar, who missed the Autumn Nations Series through injury, returns to Wales‘ XV at fly-half and is joined in the half-backs by Tomos Williams at nine.
Up front props Gareth Thomas and Tomas Francis link up with captain Ken Owens in the front-row. Alun Wyn Jones and Adam Beard make up the tight five.
Gatland’s back-row comprises the in-form Jac Morgan at blindside flanker, Justin Tipuric at openside and Taulupe Faletau at number eight in a strong trio.
Owen Williams (fly-half) and Scott Baldwin (hooker), whose last appearances in a Wales jersey came in 2017 are named in the matchday 23. Williams, along with fellow replacements Dafydd Jenkins and Tommy Reffell, would join Hawkins in making their Six Nations debut if they appear from the bench in Cardiff on Saturday.
Rhys Carre and Dillon Lewis provide the remaining pack cover. Alex Cuthbert and Rhys Webb, who last played a Test in 2020, are the other back options.
Gatland said: “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 have given him another opportunity. There’s some real competition in the midfield at the moment, so I’m really excited about that.
“There’s a mixture in the team of some experience, some younger players. We were conscious as well picking the bench. We think we’ve got a bench that can come on and have an impact.”
Praise for in-form side Ireland
He added: “Ireland are the number one team in the world, so they’re 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 for us 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 that the guys will go out and give a good account of themselves. They’re pretty excited about playing this first game at home.”
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Josh Adams, 13 George North, 12 Joe Hawkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Jac Morgan, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Gareth Thomas
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Dafydd Jenkins, 20 Tommy Reffell, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Alex Cuthbert
Date: Saturday, February 4
Venue: Principality Stadium
Kick-off: 14:15 GMT
Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner (RA), Luke Pearce (RFU)
TMO: Tom Foley (RFU)
READ MORE: Six Nations preview: Warren Gatland’s return to take Wales to a third-place finish