Phillips form key to Howley
Wales are looking for scrum-half talisman Mike Phillips to recapture top form in this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship.
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Interim head coach Rob Howley accepts there is a need to "get Mike back to his best" as the countdown continues towards Wales' Six Nations opener against Ireland in Cardiff on February 2.
Bayonne number nine Phillips struggled for consistency during Wales' autumn Tests this term, yet with 72 caps under his belt and three British and Irish Lions Test appearances, there can be no doubting his quality.
"Mike is back playing to some level - he needs to get to the next level, to where he was," former Wales scrum-half and captain Howley said.
"He has gone away to France, and I have tried to give him some stats in terms of the brand and type of rugby they are playing.
"When he plays for us, he makes 60 or 70 passes a game. In France, it's 20-25, so that puts pressure on his conditioning. Mike has been told.
"On his day, when he is fit and confident, Mike is probably one of the best number nines in the northern hemisphere. We need to get Mike back to his best.
"He has got pressure (in the Wales squad) with Tavis Knoyle and Lloyd Williams, but you would like to think, if Mike is back to his best, he's got a huge part to play in our performances in the Six Nations."
Wales, meanwhile, will not be afraid to unleash the express pace of uncapped Ospreys wing sensation Eli Walker on this season's Six Nations.
Howley believes 20-year-old Walker "absolutely poses a challenge" to establish Wales strike-runners George North and Alex Cuthbert, who have scored 16 Test tries between them.
Walker will be joined by four other Test rookies - locks James King and Andrew Coombs, plus Cardiff Blues back-row pair Josh Navidi and Andries Pretorius - when a 35-man squad reports for Six Nations duty next week.
Despite making only 27 starts during his fledgling Ospreys career, Walker has thrilled audiences across Europe through dazzling footwork and blistering speed.
"Eli absolutely poses a challenge to George and Alex. He is there for competition. He is the in-form winger in the UK at this moment," Howley added.
While Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts are Wales' established midfield pairing, powerful North is viewed by many as a Test centre-in-waiting, and it is conceivable that Walker's arrival on the scene could see that happen, especially if Davies or Roberts pick up an injury.
More injuries are the last thing that Howley needs, though, given that he has been unable to include three unfit locks - Alun-Wyn Jones (shoulder), Bradley Davies (ankle) and Luke Charteris (knee) - among his initial Six Nations group.
Fly-half Rhys Priestland, flanker Dan Lydiate, prop Aaron Jarvis and centre Ashley Beck are also injury absentees, although players like Jones and Lydiate could come into the mix by mid-tournament.
And complicating matters in the second-row department are an ongoing knee injury that Ian Evans is battling to overcome, while lock option Ryan Jones dislocated his thumb in Heineken Cup combat two days ago.