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Wales kick-off title defence at Murrayfield

©

Video by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-02-08

The Six Nations title holders begin their campaign to secure their first Grand Slam back-to-back double since 1979 at Murrayfield on Sunday. Wales take on Scotland without the injured Gavin Henson, replaced by Tom Shanklin.

REUTERS - Wales coach Warren Gatland has welcomed the pressure placed upon the grand slam champions as they prepare to defend the Six Nations title.

The Welsh, who have completed two clean sweeps in four years, open their 2009 campaign against Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday (1500 GMT).

Gatland, a former New Zealand All Black, has ambitions beyond Europe as he seeks to build a team capable of beating the Tri-Nations teams on a regular basis in the run-up to the 2011 World Cup.

"The challenge for us to not run away from that, to embrace that and move forward," Gatland told reporters.

"If we want to be considered one of the best teams in the world it's not something that's going to be unusual, it's going to be something that's going to be an expectation for Wales teams in the future.

"It's a tournament of history, it's a real tournament of momentum as well. You win one or two games and you can build on that.

"We benefited from that last year. You have got to really hit the ground running, you haven't got any leadup so with all those teams it's making sure you've done the preparation and you're ready to go from day one."

Gatland wanted paired Gavin Henson with Jamie Roberts in the centres, splitting the Henson-Tom Shanklin combination which featured in both grand slams.

Henson ruled out

Unfortunatly for Gatland, Gavin Henson has withdrawn injured from the Wales squad for the Six Nations champions' opener against Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) said on Friday.

Henson, who would have been paired with Jamie Roberts in the centres for the first time, has failed to recover from a calf strain and will be replaced in the starting line-up by Tom
Shanklin.

The WRU said Henson's injury would be re-assessed next week. The player has not represented his country since Wales beat France last March.

Wales have not won back-to-back grand slams for 100 years but they are deservedly the bookmakers' favourites after displaying encouraging form in an otherwise dismal month for the home nations during last November's internationals.

The Welsh dominated the second half against world champions South Africa and led the New Zealand All Blacks at halftime, before losing both matches. They finished with a flourish by defeating Australia.

Gatland was furious with his players after the All Blacks' match, a reflection of the standards he has set, and last week he said he believed his side could still improve by 20 to 25 percent over the next two to three seasons.

"Physically there's always an improvement," he said. "It's learning to play and train at a higher intensity."

Wales will field the pack which started in the victory over Australia with Andy Powell, a revelation at number eight, playing his first championship game.

Winger Leigh Halfpenny will also play his first Six Nations match and scrumhalf Mike Phillips returns after two knee operations.

In a reflection of the growing depth in the Welsh squad, Gatland has the luxury of choosing between two world-class flyhalves.

He has opted on Sunday to start with Stephen Jones, who was highly impressive last November, with James Hook sitting on the bench. Hook is a gloriously talented player and could easily be a first choice for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa this year.

Scotland take the field without injured tighthead prop Euan Murray, another Lions prospect.

However, coach Frank Hadden is cautiously optimistic that his side will be fully competitive this year after an encouraging performance against the All Blacks and an even better effort against South Africa who were lucky to scrape a win.

"We've had to fight really hard to keep in touch with the big boys of world rugby," Hadden said. "It's extremely important to the country that instead of just narrowing the gap we give some tangible signs of that progress by winning important rugby matches."

Date created : 2009-02-08

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