Cardiff — Wales’ first-choice full-back Leigh Halfpenny has been named in the country’s Six Nations squad despite a battle with concussion that has ruled him out of their opening match against France in Paris on February 1.
The 30-year-old — capped 80 times — has been struggling with the head injury since he took a hefty late tackle playing against Australia on November 10 but has been picked for an enlarged squad that will be pruned down to a matchday 23 next Tuesday.
Wayne Pivac, Halfpenny’s coach at his Pro14 side Scarlets, warned last week that a specialist had said he would be out for three to five weeks, which would also rule him out of Wales’ following match against Italy just over a week later.
This has not stopped head coach Warren Gatland from selecting him for what will be the New Zealander’s final Six Nations, as he will step down after this year’s World Cup in Japan.
But, conceding Halfpenny will only feature in his squad if he is fully fit, Gatland said: “We will make an assessment when he (Halfpenny) comes in. We will see where he is at.
“He has been advised to continue training and stuff. If he’s right, he will be in contention, but if not, we will have to make some other plans.” Gatland’s Six Nations group includes plenty of his tried and trusted old guard — such as veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones, 33, who will skipper the side — as well as fresher faces like Wasps flanker Thomas Young and Leicester back Jonah Holmes.
Young, who won caps against Tonga and Samoa in 2017, has been among the English Premiership’s form players this season.
Holmes made his Test debut earlier this campaign, and he has been a rare shining light in what has been a tough season for Leicester.
Bath No 8 Taulupe Faletau would have made the squad a 40-man one but the 28-year-old backrow forward broke his arm on his return from a similar injury on Saturday.
Faletau is expected to be out for up to eight weeks, which will likely rule him out of the whole tournament as it reaches a climax on March 16.
Gatland believes Wales’ Six Nations opener against France is potentially their toughest assignment.
Wales tackle Les Bleus following a clean sweep of November Test wins that stretched the unbeaten record of Gatland’s team to nine games.
“I think we’ve got a great chance of winning the Six Nations, if we win that opening game,” Gatland said.
“That first game is going to be our toughest. We feel like we are in as good a position as anybody to do well.
“The whole thing about the Six Nations is momentum. If you can win your first couple of games, then you have a great chance of being in contention on the last weekend.”
Wales squad Forwards:
Rob Evans (Scarlets), Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Elliot Dee (Dragons), Ryan Elias (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Leon Brown (Dragons), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs/ENG), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Adam Beard (Ospreys), Seb Davies (Cardiff Blues), Cory Hill (Dragons), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/capt), Ross Moriarty (Dragons), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Josh Turnbull (Cardiff Blues), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons), Thomas Young (Wasps) Backs: Aled Davies (Ospreys), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Tomos Williams (Cardiff Blues), Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints/ENG), Jarrod Evans (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Patchell (Scarlets), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Owen Watkin (Ospreys), Scott Williams (Ospreys), Josh Adams (Worcester Warriors/ENG), Hallam Amos (Dragons), Steffan Evans (Scarlets), Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets), Jonah Holmes (Leicester Tigers/ENG), George North (Ospreys), Liam Williams (Saracens/ENG).