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6N: Gatland worried clubs upheaval stressing his Wales team

Wales coach Warren Gatland is concerned his players are being distracted from chasing the Six Nations rugby title by proposed upheavals in the domestic club game. Gatland was worried enough on Tuesday to announce, two days earlier than expected, the team to play Scotland this weekend at Murrayfield.

He wanted to let squad members know where they stood as soon as possible before the trip to Edinburgh, while speculation swirls about their futures in the Welsh regional clubs. "We have got to put adversity to one side and focus on the job (against Scotland)," Gatland said. "We have named the team early to be on the front foot, and let everyone know we are looking ahead to Saturday's game."

Scarlets and Ospreys, the two most recently successful regions, are being proposed to merge and move from south Wales to a new home in the west. Those teams involve nine players in the Wales XV against Scotland, and 13 of the matchday 23. Among those affected are Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies, George North and Justin Tipuric.

The Welsh Rugby Union, which owns the teams, wants to keep fielding four regions, and proposes to start a new team in the north. The other two regional sides, Dragons and Cardiff Blues, will remain where they are in the south.

The proposals come out of a desperate need to improve the regions' finances and competitiveness. None of the four Welsh sides are in playoff position in the Pro14. In the more prestigious European Champions Cup, no Welsh side reached the quarterfinals, and none has made the final since the first, 23 years ago.

Gatland wasn't happy with the timing of the proposals, with Wales on a record winning streak and in pole position for a first Six Nations title in six years. "There's no doubt the players have been distracted. It is concerning," he said. "Players have been going home and getting asked questions by wives and partners about what's going on. The timing isn't brilliant but the players have been professional.

"If a team does end up in north Wales, it's going to be challenging for players who may go up there. But from a Welsh perspective I see it as a massive opportunity. There's a million people and big businesses up there. Our crowds aren't big enough. A team in north Wales may be a positive outcome for Welsh rugby long-term."

Ken Owens, the Wales and British Lions hooker who was also chairman of the Welsh Rugby Players Association, admitted these were stressful times in the local game. "There's a little bit of anger among the players. For someone like myself and Alun Wyn Jones, one-club men, there's the question of how the new entity is going to look," Owens said. "Some boys have got offers over the (Severn) bridge. Do they take them or wait to see where the land lies? Has it been a distraction? It's Welsh rugby, it always is.

"We are excited about going to Scotland and the challenge — they are a very good team. We are a tight squad and work hard for each other. This isn't going to split us at all. It will bring us closer together and hopefully we will take our frustrations out on Saturday."

Gatland made only one change to his starting lineup, bringing in lock Adam Beard for Cory Hill, who was out of the championship after injuring his ankle while beating England 21-13 two weekends ago. Beard has featured in the last nine matches for the tournament leader, all of them wins.

In the reserves, Jake Ball took Beard's place. Liam Williams was retained at fullback even with the return to fitness of Leigh Halfpenny after three months out with concussion and symptoms. Halfpenny needed more games, said Gatland, who added it would have been unfair to drop reserve back Owen Watkin.

Gareth Anscombe was the starting flyhalf again despite not kicking well out of hand against England. Scotland will name its side on Thursday.

Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Rob Evans. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Aaron Wainwright, Aled Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.

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