Howley gives Wales, Warburton tools to rediscover form

2:20 PM GMT

Whisper it quietly, but there is a renewed sense of optimism emanating from west of the Severn Bridge following Wales’ Six Nations squad announcement.

Welsh rugby fans have long called for change within the national setup, and on the back of a disappointing autumn, interim head coach Rob Howley has decided to freshen things up.

He cannot be blamed for doing so. Wales won three matches in November: they were blown away by Australia and struggled to beat both Argentina and Japan as they looked a shadow of their former selves, devoid of ideas and inspiration.

They will certainly be given a large dose of the latter from their new captain, Alun Wyn Jones, while the seven uncapped players in the squad — five for the first time — are hungry and in form.

Howley may well have included an eighth had Keelan Giles not hobbled out of the Ospreys’ European Challenge Cup win over Lyon on Sunday. His absence quells the excitement slightly, but Scarlets wing Steff Evans has been in electric form himself this season.

However, the biggest decision facing Howley when he sat down with the rest of the Wales coaching staff to finalise this squad was who should lead it into the Six Nations.

Sam Warburton has stepped down as Wales captain as he attempts to cement his place in the starting XV. Stu Forster/Getty Images

Sam Warburton has been a fine captain for his country since he was catapulted into the role ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but he is no longer a guaranteed starter.

The form of Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty — two stand-outs of the autumn campaign — and the inclusion of uncapped duo Olly Cracknell and Thomas Young, meant that he had to be allowed to concentrate on cementing his place in the Wales back row.

With a British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand to come this summer, 2017 could be another huge year for Warburton but he has work to do if he is going to board that plane, let alone lead the tour.

Unburdened by the Wales captaincy, the Six Nations could prove the perfect stage on which to remind everyone of his undoubted quality. Letting go of the armband certainly didn’t do England’s Chris Robshaw any harm 12 months ago.

It made Howley’s job a lot easier, of course, that he had Jones waiting in the wings to take over. The Ospreys lock is a natural leader, who has captained his country and the Lions in the past with no little success.

Owen Williams has been called up for the first time by Wales following some fine form for Leicester.┬áRachel Holborn – CameraSport via Getty Images

Jones is also a guaranteed selection and a man who his teammates look up to. He has long carried the aura of a captain, even if other players were given the honour ahead of him.

The skipper will be under no illusion as to the size of the task facing him and Wales this spring, but there is a reason why this squad selection has been greeted so positively.

There is genuine competition for places, and not just in the back row where Youngs deservedly gets his chance following 18 months of consistently impressive performances for Wasps.

Owen Williams is another Aviva Premiership-based player included, and he can be expected to challenge Dan Biggar and Sam Davies for the No. 10 shirt. Outside of them Ashton Hewitt and Evans provide exciting, pacey alternatives to the tried and tested options.

They may not end up seeing much action in the Six Nations but their presence in the squad will be beneficial not only in their development, but also in helping to kick Wales out of a period of stagnation.

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