Warburton "pretty relaxed" - Howley

Salisbury Journal: Sam Warburton will start on the bench against Italy Sam Warburton will start on the bench against Italy

Wales assistant coach Rob Howley believes Sam Warburton is "pretty relaxed" as he prepares for the opening flurries of this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship.

Warburton recently become the first player to agree contractual terms with the Welsh Rugby Union, a three-year deal that will take effect from next season.

But Regional Rugby Wales - umbrella organisation for Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons - reiterated its stance late on Wednesday night of the regions not selecting any centrally-contracted player until agreement is reached with the WRU on several outstanding key issues.

The WRU stated last weekend that it would allow Warburton to continue playing for his current team the Blues next term.

Warburton will be on the bench against Italy on Saturday after two months out because of a shoulder injury, with lock Alun-Wyn Jones taking over from him as captain.

"Obviously, there is surprise at the timing of it (RRW statement on Wednesday)," Howley said.

"I think Sam is a little bit surprised, having been engaged in terms of talks over the last six to eight weeks with the Blues.

"Sam is pretty relaxed about it. He is a level-headed guy, rugby is first and foremost.

"The message from the national squad is that we want all our players to stay in Wales, whether that is with the national team on contract or with the regions. Alun-Wyn Jones staying in Wales is fantastic for Welsh rugby.

"It's great for Sam, the Blues and Welsh rugby that we've got our Lions and Wales captain staying here in Wales, as opposed to plying his trade over the (Severn) Bridge or in France."

The WRU say they want as many Wales stars to sign deals with the regions as possible, and claim to have "encouraged" the Scarlets to "conclude negotiations" with Rhys Priestland and Scott Williams, and the Ospreys to follow suit with Adam Jones. Those three players will be out of contract later this year.

"A nationally-contracted player will be offered back to their region of origin free of charge, which means the money they would have been paying that individual could then be spent on other players to bolster their squad," the WRU said on Thursday.

"The clear intention is to ensure the four regions have the opportunity of gathering the strongest squads possible to compete on domestic and European stages.

"To support this strategy the WRU has encouraged the Scarlets and the Ospreys to conclude negotiations with Scott Williams and Rhys Priestland and Adam Jones, respectively.

"The WRU remains willing to step in with national contract offers for those individuals who were nominated by the regions, late in 2013, as players they regarded as key members of their squads whose services should be retained in Wales.

"If the necessary negotiations are completed and the national contract formula is secured in a new Rugby Services Agreement, the WRU will be prepared for some key contracts held by the regions to revert to the governing body if the regions wish and the players agree."

A toxic political climate in Wales between WRU and RRW shows no sign of abating as the countdown to Six Nations kick-off continues.

But Howley says there is no danger of players or coaches being distracted as defending champions Wales target an unprecedented Six Nations title hat-trick.

"As a player, as a coach, you can't go anywhere in Wales at the moment without being asked what's happening off the field, but it is important we focus our challenges and resources on what happens on the field," he added.

"There will be no excuses for the performance on Saturday. We expect to play well and we expect to get the championship off to a winning start.

"If you don't turn up in terms of your mindset and discipline - that is what international rugby is about - and be clinical, then you can actually lose a game. It is something we are mindful of for the weekend."

Racing Metro flanker Dan Lydiate, meanwhile, has rejoined the Wales squad and trained on Thursday following a flying visit home to Paris earlier this week for the birth of his daughter Lucy. Lydiate will start alongside Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau in the back-row this weekend.

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