Sam Warburton has been ruled out of Wales’s penultimate match in the Six Nations against Italy with a knee problem.
The Cardiff Blues openside was expected to start against the Azzurri and was set to face a back row showdown with Sergio Parisse but it is believed Gatland wants his captain fit for Wales’s final game against France in Cardiff.
In Warburton’s absence, the captaincy has been handed to Gethin Jenkins who will lead the side out for the fourth time after becoming the 125th Welsh captain against South Africa in 2007. Ospreys openside, Justin Tipuric, will take Warburton’s place at openside.
Matthew Rees will also make his first start for Wales since he was ruled out of the 2011 World Cup with a neck injury which resulted in the loss of his captaincy to Warburton.
His return will see the reformation of the front-row combination including Jenkins and Adam Jones who played for the British and Irish Lions test side in the 2009 South African series. This was the first all Welsh front row for the Lions since 1955, and were considered to be the best in the world.
Jamie Roberts remains in the starting line up after making a speedy recovery from an injury he received against England at Twickenham.
Luke Charteris makes his return to the bench after recovering from a wrist injury he sustained playing for the Newport Gwent Dragons and James Hook has recovered from a bout of chicken pox to replace Stephen Jones on the bench.
Wales coach Warren Gatland indicated he expected Warburton to return to the squad for the France game but was reassured Wales would be left in safe hands with Jenkins.
Talking about his decision not to give the captaincy back to Rees, Gatland said: “It’s more than enough for Matthew to concentrate on his place never mind being captain. He is unlikely to last for the full eighty minutes where Gethin is match fit.”
He added: “It takes a huge amount of pressure off Matthew just to say to him to go out and concentrate on playing hooker. He has to fight for his position at the moment and there is strong competition in his slot.”
Before Warburton’s tenure began in 2011, Wales had been without a regular captain for some time. Players who had taken the role included Jenkins, Rees, Alun Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones, Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams.
The Welsh team have not been short of strong leaders in recent years, a point referenced by Gatland at the press conference at the Vale Resort in the Vale of Glamorgan.
He said: “It’s a nice situation we find ourselves in for us to have so many strong leaders. The players all lead their own ways, Gethin leads from the front while Sam is quieter but both of them are extremely effective leaders.
“Gethin is one of the most intelligent forwards I have worked with, all the players have their strengths and weaknesses and they all rely on each other.”
On the subject of the team’s current run of form, Jenkins said: “We are a very confident squad but we could easily have lost the last two games. We’re on a roll now which makes us want to keep improving on our momentum.”
Wales face an Italian side who remain at the bottom of the Six Nations table after failing to win their games against France, Ireland and England, but have not been adverse to causing an upset.
Jenkins said: “The expectation will all be on us this Saturday, we have to believe in ourselves and believe what we can do if we put in a good performance. It’s just a case of imposing our game on them.”
Gatland added: “Italy are going through a transition and things don’t happen over night. They have the least lack of depth of any squad in the Six Nations and they bring a lot of emotion to the game.
“The Six Nations is such a difficult tournament to win and if you win a few games you get confident, we grew an arm and a leg in confidence and self belief but there is almost a fear of failure.
“But if you lose a few games the roof crashes in on you with criticism. The Six Nations is not a game or a tournament, it’s more than that.”
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North; Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Gethin Jenkins (c), Mathew Rees, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuric.
REPLACEMENTS: Ken Owens, Paul James, Luke Charteris, Ryan Jones, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams.