WARREN Gatland has hit back at the critics of Wales' Test against South Africa on Saturday – stressing that the Washington clash is vital for his World Cup hopefuls.

A raft of stars have been left at home for the June encounters with the Springboks and Argentina following their exertions with the Lions in 2017.

Gatland has named a team for the game at RFK Stadium (kick-off 10pm) featuring just Dragons lock Cory Hill and George North, at centre rather than wing, from the one that took on France in the Six Nations finale.

South Africa, meanwhile, have named an XV featuring seven debutants with six more set for their Test bows from the bench.

The clash has been slammed in some quarters for merely being a money-spinner as it is outside World Rugby's Test window.

However, Gatland has defended the tour opener and believes the international, plus the double-header with the Pumas, provides a golden opportunity for players such as the Dragons' Elliot Dee and Hallam Amos in the countdown to Japan 2019.

"To me, if anyone has come out and criticised this match, they're completely badly-informed in terms of how important this match is for the long term," said Gatland.

"The only people I could think of criticising this match would have to be someone with a chip on their shoulder, be pretty bitter and twisted, because I see this as absolutely vital in terms of our planning for 2019, creating depth and replicating conditions that are going to be very much the same in Japan.

"Playing in a different situation, different culture, travelling, putting ourselves out of the comfort zone. This is a really important stepping stone for us.

"It's going to be pretty humid and warm. They'll be really testing conditions and very similar to what we may experience in Japan."

There are two uncapped players in the 23 with Cardiff Blues' Tomos Williams, an unused replacement against Samoa last summer, starting at scrum-half and Dragons flanker Aaron Wainwright among the replacements.

"We said to all the players that this tour is an opportunity, everyone would be involved in a 23," said Gatland. "Players aren't just here to make up the numbers or hold tackle bags, we want everyone to get a chance.

"There are some youngsters in there who haven't had a lot of international experience and it's a great chance for them, I am really excited about it.

"We haven't included a lot of the Scarlets boys that were involved in the [PRO14] final, these players were with us during that week and have trained well.

"It's a great chance for these guys playing against what will be a tough, physical team. We are 12 months out before we start narrowing the numbers down for a squad.

"In 2015 we picked up a number of injuries and struggled with the depth. We feel very much on track."