RUGBY : Warren Gatland insists British and Irish Lions sensation Jamie Roberts will not be pressed into emergency full-back duty when Wales tackle New Zealand next week.
Warren Gatland insists British and Irish Lions sensation Jamie Roberts will not be pressed into emergency full-back duty when Wales tackle New Zealand next week.
Wales boss Gatland must find a replacement for 22-year-old Roberts’ fellow Lion Lee Byrne in the number 15 shirt. Byrne is out of the entire autumn series – Wales also face Samoa, Argentina and Australia – due to a foot injury.
Gatland’s 29-man autumn Test squad does not include a specialist full-back, and his choice for the All Blacks clash would appear to be a straight one between Leigh Halfpenny and James Hook.
Roberts started the first Test of Wales’ 2008 South Africa tour as Gatland’s last line of defence, but an impressive run at inside centre means a temporary change of position can be ruled out.
Gatland offered a categoric “no” to questions suggesting he might consider moving 6ft 4in Roberts, who has emerged on current form as arguably European rugby’s most destructive inside centre.
His midfield partnership with Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll on the Lions’ three-Test trip to South Africa this summer proved a major tour highlight.
“I think he has found his spot. He is only going to get better as a 12 – the more he plays there, the more experience he gets,” said Gatland. “You can see him aged 25 or 26, with a number of caps under his belt, being one of the best players in the world.”
Gatland’s other key decision is in the front row, and whether or not he switches experienced Lions prop Gethin Jenkins from loosehead to tighthead.
Wales are minus the services of injured props Adam Jones and John Yapp, leaving three players – Duncan Jones, Paul James and Craig Mitchell – contesting one place alongside Jenkins.
The probable outcome is that Gatland will move Jenkins, starting Jones at loosehead, with the pair packing down either side of Lions hooker Matthew Rees.