Rob Howley's challenge to in-form Ospreys wing Eli Walker
ELI Walker has been welcomed into Wales's squad for the Six Nations with a glowing compliment from acting head coach Rob Howley — and a challenge to turn up the heat on two of the most feared wings in European rugby.
George North and Alex Cuthbert struck terror into defences during their first campaign as a pairing out wide.
But Walker's displays for the Ospreys have been so impressive that Howley yesterday felt able to call him the form wing in UK rugby, as the 20-year-old with the Rolls Royce acceleration sped into the national squad for the first time.
Howley said: "Eli absolutely poses a challenge to George and Alex. We have competition for places and that's why he's there.
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"He was in our discussions during the autumn but we felt it better to stick with Harry Robinson on grounds of continuity. But Eli has proved us wrong. He's been outstanding and is the in-form wing in the UK.
"His performances over the Christmas period were very consistent, particularly on the big stage in the Heineken Cup against Toulouse and Leicester. His work-rate and ability to come off his wing are what you want in Test rugby."
Walker clinched his selection with the electric cross-field run that set up Jonathan Spratt's late try against Leicester last weekend, the wing leaving a trail of defenders in his wake as he raced 50 metres to help salvage a draw for Steve Tandy's side.
Like North and Cuthbert, he is a game-changing player, someone who can alter the course of a match in a split-second with a devastating intervention.
"Not only does he have pace, ability to beat a man and a big work-rate, but his handling and decision-making on the ball are really good as well," said Howley.
"There are not many unforced errors in his game and international rugby is about not making mistakes. He's very accurate on the ball and runs hard — that's a constant you need in Test rugby.
"Does he still have a bit to learn? Alex, George and Eli are all young and learning the game. The hardest things for a wing to learn are defensive awareness and positioning.
"Our wings will continue to learn over the next few years because they are young."
Howley has named a 35-man squad that includes five uncapped players in Walker and fellow Osprey James King, Blues pair Josh Navidi and Andries Pretorious and Dragons back-five player Andrew Coombs. South Africa-born Pretorious qualifies on residence grounds after three years in Wales.
Lee Byrne is recalled after missing the autumn series, while fit-again Adam Jones and Craig Mitchell are also welcomed back, Howley stressing how important he believes a solid scrum will be if Wales are to successfully defend the Six Nations title.