Express Walker can grab Wales place, insists Howley

Wales will not be afraid to unleash the express pace of uncapped Ospreys wing sensation Eli Walker on this season’s RBS 6 Nations Championship.

Interim head coach Rob Howley believes 20-year-old Walker “absolutely poses a challenge” to established Wales strike-runners George North and Alex Cuthbert, who have scored 16 Test tries between them.

Walker will be joined by four other Test rookies – locks James King and Andrew Coombs, plus Cardiff Blues back-row pair Josh Navidi and Andries Pretorius – when a 35-man squad reports for Six Nations duty next week.

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Despite making only 27 starts during his fledgling Ospreys career, Walker has thrilled audiences across Europe with his dazzling footwork and blistering speed.

His stunning second-half break set up substitute Jonathan Spratt’s late try that helped the Ospreys secure a draw against Heineken Cup rivals Leicester last Sunday, a game that Howley watched.

“Eli absolutely poses a challenge to George and Alex. He is there for competition,” Howley said.

“He was in our discussions during the autumn series this season. We just felt for continuity it was better to stick with Harry (Robinson), but Eli has proved us wrong. He is the in-form winger in the UK at this moment.

“His performances over the Christmas period were very consistent, and particularly on the big stage in the Heineken Cup, his performances against Toulouse and Leicester.

“He has ability to beat a man, good work-rate, and his handling and decision-making on the ball is really good.”

While Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts are Wales’s established midfield pairing, powerful North is viewed by many as a Test centre-in-waiting, and it is conceivable that Walker’s arrival on the scene could see that happen, especially if Davies or Roberts picks up an injury.

More injuries are the last thing that Howley needs, though, given that he has been unable to include three unfit locks – Alun-Wyn Jones (shoulder), Bradley Davies (ankle) and Luke Charteris (knee) – among his initial Six Nations group.

Fly-half Rhys Priestland, flanker Dan Lydiate, prop Aaron Jarvis and centre Ashley Beck are also injury absentees, although players like Jones and Lydiate could come into the mix by mid-tournament.

Ian Evans’s battle to overcome a knee injury is complicating matters in the second-row department while lock option Ryan Jones dislocated his thumb in Heineken Cup combat three days ago.

Pretorius, born in Nelspruit, South Africa, qualifies on residency for Wales and became available for selection last month. Australia-born King, meanwhile, has English parents, but he was initially brought up in north Wales and played for Mold Rugby Club. Elsewhere, there are recalls for Clermont Auvergne full-back Lee Byrne, who has not featured in a Wales match-day 23 since the 2011 World Cup, and Exeter prop Craig Mitchell. Star scrummager Adam Jones also returns after missing the entire autumn Test series because of injury.

And Sam Warburton has been confirmed as captain for the Six Nations, although it is a possibility he could wear the number six shirt against Ireland, packing down in a back-row alongside Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau.