/ Six Nations 2014

Gatland optimistic on Warburton

Updated: Tuesday, 06 Mar 2012 16:46

Sam Warburton remains a doubt with a knee injury
Sam Warburton remains a doubt with a knee injury

Wales boss Warren Gatland is hopeful that captain Sam Warburton will be fit to lead the World Cup semi-finalists' potential assault on the RBS 6 Nations title and Grand Slam glory next week.

World Cup skipper Warburton will miss his second game of this season's Six Nations after being sidelined for the Millennium Stadium clash against Italy on Saturday.

Prop Gethin Jenkins takes over as skipper from flanker Warburton, who has a knee problem suffered during the opening stages of Wales' Triple Crown-clinching victory over England 10 days ago.

In Warburton's absence, 22-year-old Ospreys openside Justin Tipuric packs down in the back row for his first Wales start alongside Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.

Asked if he thought Warburton would be fit to face title rivals France in 11 days' time, Gatland said: "I am hoping so, yes.

"He is not fit for this week. He's got a bit of a medial strain, so we are hoping he might be right for next week."

Warburton, one of the world's top number sevens, did not play against Scotland last month because of a thigh injury that forced him off at half-time in Dublin the previous weekend.

But Gatland has no qualms about Tipuric stepping into a role that was filled by Aaron Shingler when Warburton sat out the Scotland game.

"He (Tipuric) was unlucky to miss out on the World Cup squad," Gatland added.

"We were incredibly impressed with him during the preparations before the World Cup.

"He's a genuine seven, and we are blessed at the moment in that we have got two real top-quality opensides in Sam and Justin. Both of them will get a lot of caps for Wales over the next few years."

Gatland has made one other change from the side that beat England at Twickenham, recalling fit-again hooker Matthew Rees instead of Ken Owens.

Rees' return means Gatland can field the 2009 British and Irish Lions Test front-row of Jenkins, Rees and Adam Jones for only a fourth time together since that tour to South Africa.

Former Wales captain Rees missed the World Cup due to a neck complaint, while a calf muscle strain hampered him during the early part of Wales' Six Nations campaign.

And centre Jamie Roberts takes his place in midfield after recovering from a knee injury, allowing Gatland to name an unchanged back division for the fourth successive game.

"Initially we were concerned about him (Roberts), but he has taken a part in training, so he is fully fit and ready to go," Gatland said.

"The front row hasn't played a lot together since 2009, but take nothing away from Ken Owens, we were very happy with his performance against England.

"We would have been more than comfortable starting with Ken this week, but this just gives us an opportunity to bring Matthew in and give him a chance against Italy, and it puts him in contention for selection next week.

"He is having to fight for his position, and hooker is one area where we feel there is a lot of depth in the squad at the moment.

"We are lucky enough at the moment that there are some strong leaders and characters in the team. Gethin has taken over (as captain) during games in this Six Nations, and we feel it is the right call for us to make.

"It takes a little bit of pressure off Matthew in that he can concentrate on playing hooker and forget about the captaincy."

Wales team to play Italy in the RBS 6 Nations Championship at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday:

L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), G North (Scarlets); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues, capt), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).

Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), P James (Ospreys) L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), R Jones (Ospreys), L Williams (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Perpignan), S Williams (Scarlets).

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