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By Peter Jackson
Sir Gareth Edwards is backing Leigh Halfpenny to kick Wales off to a winning Six Nations start.
Warren Gatland was left with only three wings to choose from in Steff Evans, Alex Cuthbert and Josh Adams after George North was withdrawn from Northampton’s squad for their Anglo-Welsh Cup game at the weekend.
And the Welsh rugby great says it is the boot of Halfpenny that can see Wales home side home against Scotland on Saturday.
The match marks the 50th anniversary of the start of Edwards’ half back partnership with Barry John, at Twickenham in 1968. “First up against Scotland is not the game Wales would have wanted,’’ says Sir Gareth, a triple Welsh Grand Slammer and double Lions’ series winner during the Seventies.
“Scottish performances in the autumn were superb. The Scots are one of the favourites although that doesn’t sit well with them. The saving grace for Wales is that it’s at Cardiff.
“And that’s a tough place for the opposition to win matches. There’s no doubt Scotland will be full of themselve after the way they played in beating Australia and very nearly beating New Zealand.
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“Does that have any relevance to what’s coming up? With all the tradition and the camaraderie of the crowds, the Six Nations has always been different in a very special way.
“Nobody has escaped the injury problem. We have lost six Lions, including Liam Williams and his ability to move the ball along the line makes him the biggest loss. But they still have talented young players and this will be their big chance to step up.’’
With Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland out of action, Rhys Patchell will play at fly-half in his first ever start in the position for Wales. Sir Gareth believes that the removal of Biggar’s proven ability as a goalkicker will earn Halfpenny a reprieve at full- back.
“Although he’s not playing as well as we know he can, I would stick with Leigh if only because he’s such a prolific goalkicker,’’ Sir Gareth says. “When all’s said and done, penalties win matches. If Biggar had been fit it would have been less of a risk to leave Halfpenny out.
“Rhys has shown his worth with the Scarlets as a very talented and extremely confident player. I like Gareth Anscombe, too and what he brings to the game. He’s very good at directing traffic.
“I’m not diving off the top board about our chances because of the number of injuries. I must admit I’m a bit concerned. Despite that, our back row is still fairly strong and Alun Wyn Jones is playing as well as ever. The pack ought to be able to look after itself and, thankfully, Gareth Davies is playing really well at scrum-half.
“There are some very exciting young players who are playing some exceptional stuff as the Scarlets have shown in the Champions’ Cup. They are ready to make their mark and surprise people.
“This Scottish fixture will be a real measure of how good they are. Everyone was thrilled at the way they played against the All Blacks but Cardiff’s a different place and I can still see Wales having just too much for them.’’
As for the bigger picture, Sir Gareth says: “I’ll be surprised if there is a Grand Slam this year. Who’s going to win it? I don’t think France will feature, that’s for sure. England at Twickenham will be difficult for Wales as will Ireland in Dublin.”
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