Thomas named in Wales team

Gavin Thomas’ exile from international rugby will end on Saturday after he was named in Wales’ starting line-up for the first Test against New Zealand in Dunedin.

Gavin Thomas’ exile from international rugby will end on Saturday after he was named in Wales’ starting line-up for the first Test against New Zealand in Dunedin.

As expected, the 32-year-old, who has not played for Wales since the tour of Australia in 2007, has been named to start on the openside flank in one of three changes to the team that lost 34-31 to South Africa at the start of the month.

Thomas gets his chance due to the absence of Martyn Williams (rested) and Sam Warburton (broken jaw) and will have no better opportunity to press his claims for World Cup selection after an impressive season with the Newport Gwent Dragons.

The other change in the pack is lock Alun Wyn Jones who gets the nod ahead of Deiniol Jones, who moves to the bench.

Coach Warren Gatland said: "Gavin Thomas is an experienced flanker who knows all about what it takes to perform at international level. He and Alun Wyn Jones have both impressed in training and deserve their chance this weekend.''

In the back line Andrew Bishop comes in at centre in place of James Hook who has remained in Wales to have surgery on his shoulder.

“Andrew has been one of the form centres in Wales this year and after helping the Ospreys lift the Magners League title was something of an unsung hero in their team,” Gatland added.

Elsewhere on the bench, Scarlets scrum-half Tavis Knoyle is in line to make his international debut if needed and is joined by Ospreys fly-half Dan Biggar and fellow Scarlet Jonathan Davies in providing cover for the backline.

Rob McCusker will once again provide the back row cover after stepping in when Andy Powell was ruled out against the Springboks in Cardiff.

Powell, Williams and Hook are three of several top-line players missing through injury or unavailability for the two-Test series in New Zealand. Others who are absent include Gethin Jenkins, Tom Shanklin, Shane Williams, Luke Charteris and Duncan Jones.

It meant the team named by Gatland today had a largely predictable look to it, given the enormity of the task in front of them at Carisbrook.

Not surprisingly the former Waikato hooker has turned to his experienced players for the series opener and the influence of old heads such as Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Thomas and the three Joneses – Ryan, Stephen and Adam – will have a large bearing on whether Wales can end their 57-year drought against the All Blacks.

“We are playing one of the best sides in the world at the moment on home soil and they don’t come much bigger than this,” said Gatland.

“But we are determined and there is a quiet self-belief creeping through the squad at the moment which makes me feel we are capable of producing a performance to be proud of against the All Blacks.”

Wales only arrived in Dunedin today after choosing to do the bulk of their preparations in Wellington, where they will be playing South Africa in next year’s World Cup.

New Zealand, fresh off a 66-28 rout of Ireland last weekend, have spent all week in Dunedin getting ready for what will be the final international at the famous Carisbrook ground after 102 years.

From next year matches will be played at the under-construction, indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Carisbrook has not been a happy hunting ground for the All Blacks in recent years.

In 2008 they lost 30-28 to South Africa thanks to a late Ricky Januarie try and last year went down 27-22 to a determined France.

On both occasions talismanic captain Richie McCaw was injured but he is lining up this weekend determined to give Carisbrook an appropriate farewell.

“It’s going to have a bit of emotion for the New Zealand team,” said Gatland.

“It’s something I understand. It’s important that we front up mentally and physically for what’s hopefully going to be a really tough game.”

Wales team to play New Zealand at Carisbrook in Dunedin on Saturday:

Lee Byrne (Ospreys); Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Andrew Bishop (Ospreys), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Tom Prydie (Ospreys); Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Ospreys); Paul James (Ospreys), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Bradley Davies (Cardiff Blues), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Jonathan Thomas (Ospreys), Gavin Thomas (Newport Gwent Dragons), Ryan Jones (Ospreys, captain).

Reserves: Huw Bennett (Ospreys), John Yapp (Cardiff Blues), Deiniol Jones (Cardiff Blues), Rob McCusker (Scarlets), Tavis Knoyle (Scarlets), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets).

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