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Gatland recalls Halfpenny for Wales start against Ireland in Six Nations

Warren Gatland marked the first team selection of his second spell as Wales coach by recalling Leigh Halfpenny to face Ireland in a Six Nations opener in Cardiff on Saturday for the full-back’s first Test start in 19 months.

Halfpenny, who has won 97 caps for his country, last featured in the starting line-up when Wales beat Canada in 2021.

The Scarlets star, back from a serious knee injury, has been selected after Liam Williams was ruled out.

Halfpenny is joined in the back-three by Josh Adams and Rio Dyer, with 20-year-old centre Joe Hawkins set for a Six Nations debut alongside Ospreys team-mate George North after being preferred to Saracens’ Nick Tompkins.

“We’ve picked Joe at 12,” said Gatland, who has only had a couple of weeks with the current squad, after announcing his team on Tuesday. “He is a lovely footballer with some great skills.”

Gatland selected a back-row of Jac Morgan — who has scored four tries in his last two Tests — Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

Veteran former skipper Alun Wyn Jones partners Adam Beard at lock, with Wales now led by Scarlets hooker Ken Owens.

Gatland’s previous reign as Wales boss, from 2007 to 2019, yielded four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals.

But Wales are now at a low ebb after fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac, his successor, guided the national side to just three wins in a 2022 that also included shock home defeats by Italy and Georgia.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Rugby Union has also been beset by allegations of misogyny, sexism, racism and homophobia within the governing body.

Claims of a “toxic culture” at the WRU were aired in a television documentary last week, resulting in the resignation of chief executive Steve Phillips on Sunday.

Ireland have had no such off-field drama and will arrive at the Principality Stadium as the world’s number-one ranked side after a superb 2022 that included a series win in New Zealand.

Head coach Andy Farrell, who is due to announce his team on Thursday, will be aware, however, that Ireland have lost their last four Six Nations games in Cardiff.

Gatland, who coached Ireland from 1998-2001, added: “We know how good they are and we are 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 am confident the guys will go out and give a good account of themselves.”

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