Wales welcome return of key trio for Aviva battle
ROB HOWLEY has welcomed the return of Wales' France-based trio for the Six Nations campaign.
Bayonne scrum-half Mike Phillips is a certainty to start in Sunday's opener against Ireland in Dublin, and he could be joined by full-back Lee Byrne (Clermont) and fly-half James Hook (Perpignan).
All three players missed Wales' December defeat at home to Australia because of club commitments, but their experience is crucial to Wales' Six Nations ambitions, given that they boast more than 150 caps between them.
"They are experienced players, comfortable playing international rugby," said Howley, Wales' assistant coach.
"They all seem to be enjoying their time in France, and it has been good to see them back in our environment.
"I am not concerned that Perpignan and Bayonne have been struggling. Their mindset seems good, and they want to be part of what they were during the World Cup. They have huge incentives to deliver."
On Sunday, Wales coach Warren Gatland could field a team containing just eight survivors from the World Cup quarter-final win against Ireland.
Three members of the pack from Wellington - injured trio Gethin Jenkins, Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris - will be sidelined during the event.
Hookers Matthew Rees (calf strain) and Lloyd Burns (neck) are also absent, while Gatland will confirm later today whether three other players have won or lost fitness battles.
Gatland has delayed his scheduled team announcement by 48 hours after deciding to give centre Jamie Roberts, fly-half Rhys Priestland and flanker Dan Lydiate time to recover
Phillips, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Huw Bennett, Adam Jones, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau are the only players who are due to reappear on starting duty from that quarter-final Cup win.