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Gatland dubs Premiership 'weak'

Eifion Lewis-Roberts
Gatland says Lewis-Roberts must become fitter to have a Wales future

Warren Gatland has cited the "weakness" of the Guinness Premiership among the reasons for omitting Sale prop Eifion Lewis-Roberts from the Wales squad.

Coach Gatland says the tight-head prop, 28, also has fitness issues to overcome if he is to have a Test future.

"The Guinness Premiership, having watched the games, is the weakest... I've ever seen," said Gatland.

Gethin Jenkins, Paul James and Craig Mitchell are Wales tight-head options to face New Zealand on 7 November.

Adam Jones' absence with injury and Gatland's view of Roberts and the Guinness Premiership mean Mitchell is the only recognised tight-head prop in the Wales squad.

The Wales front-row pool including Cardiff Blue Jenkins, James and Mitchell is completed by the latter duo's fellow Osprey Duncan Jones.

New Zealander Gatland, who has coached Wasps to Heineken Cup and Guinness Premiership titles, said: "We have a concern about Eifion and we've told him that to play at international level he still needs to get a bit fitter and drop a bit of weight.

Just the fact that a player's starting in the Premiership is no guarantee that he should be selected for Wales

Wales coach Warren Gatland

"We've had some conversations with him and it's different between playing in the Premiership [and playing for Wales], I think.

"The Guinness Premiership, having watched the games, is the weakest Premiership I've ever seen since I've been up here [the northern hemisphere].

"And so just the fact that a player's starting in the Premiership is no guarantee that he should be selected for Wales.

"We are conscious that he's got some potential. He could come into the side in the future.

"But he still needs to make sure that as a player if he wants to be involved with international rugby there's some work to do on his mobility and fitness."

A Guinness Premiership spokesman responded to Gatland's comment by saying: "We found a new sponsor last week in a multi-million pound deal and we are still attracting record crowds this season, averaging over 12,000 per match.

"But everyone is entitled to a view which makes for such an interesting debate on both sides of the border."

Mitchell, 23, made his Ospreys debut in the 2005-06 season and to date has made 10 first-team appearances, seven of them as a replacement.

This season he has started twice for the Welsh region and been a replacement twice more with the Ospreys more often preferring Cai Griffiths as Adam Jones recovers from shoulder surgery.

Last weekend Mitchell played for Neath in their 27-39 Welsh Premiership defeat by Cardiff while Griffiths and Paul James shared the Ospreys' tight-head duties in their 20-12 loss to the Blues.

However, Gatland believes he and Wales forwards coach Robin McBryde can develop Mitchell as a contender for a place at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and as a long-term successor to Adam Jones.

But the Wales coach is disappointed Mitchell has not been given more opportunities by the Ospreys and is equally concerned at their scrummaging troubles this season.

However, Gatland also believes the Ospreys' propping trio at his disposal can operate at the required level with Wales.

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He said: "The disappointing thing about the Ospreys in the two Heineken Cup games [against Leicester and Clermont Auvergne] was how much pressure their scrum was under.

"But we've got to back ourselves in this environment with Robin McBryde and myself that we can get our scrum operating against a very good All Blacks' scrum.

"We've got Gethin who can cover us at tight-head. I think Paul James has done a pretty good job on the couple of occasions when he's moved over to the tight-head for the Ospreys and Duncan gives us a lot of experience."

Gatland says he has told Duncan Jones, James and Mitchell that Jenkins, who has played twice for Cardiff Blues since returning from shoulder surgery, will be in the team to face the All Blacks, but has yet to decide on which side of the scrum.

"I've spoken to the three props and just put them in the picture and said "look, it's very, very likely that Gethin is going to be one of the starting props, whether it's at loose-head or tight-head, and out of you three one of you is going to start and one of you is going to be on the bench, probably".

"The great thing about Gethin is that the subject has been raised and he has no fear about putting that number three jersey on.

"He said "just give me the jersey, I'll do the job" so that's the sort of attitude that he has as a player and whether it's at one or three I think he'll do a great job anyway."



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