It’s game on for Wales – but now England can add to Warren Gatland’s crisis
Week by week, the furrows on the brow of Warren Gatland seem to deepen. You wonder if the Wales head coach might already be considering whether it was worth coming back at all. Called back to his kingdom with the promise of a handsome salary and the chance for a great restoration, just three months into his second tenure and Gatland wears the grim visage of a monarch returning home to find the castle in total ruin.
Yes, it’s been another of those weeks for the Welsh Rugby Union(WRU), an organisation for which unedifying crises are becoming a stock-in-trade, after a fortnight of contract negotiations that threatened civil war. The Six Nations has been visited by plenty of ghouls during its long lineage, but this was an unprecedented threat of strike action that, until an eleventh-hour agreement on Wednesday evening, seemed to be creeping ever closer.
“With the events of the last six to eight weeks everybody in Welsh rugby needs to pull together now to find the best way forward,” Wales captain Ken Owens said on Wednesday, as acting WRU chief executive Nigel Walker nodded along next to him.
“We need to do it collaboratively to put Welsh rugby back at the top of world rugby, and not the laughing stock which I think we are at the moment.”
The Welsh players may have ultimately reached an accord to allow this marquee encounter to go ahead, but still the foreboding winds of change blow. The battle lines between players and governing bodies only seem likely to be drawn more frequently hence.
Still, it is game on – which may be yet more reason for those ready to pack the Principality to fret. For all the off-field woe, things have hardly been rosy on the pitch for Wales since Gatland’s return. The drubbings against Ireland and Scotland only served to underline the talent gap they may battle to close; nine more changes to the starting side speaking to real uncertainty about who is best placed to close it.
Gatland has flittered again, this time favouring the old guard up front and newer faces behind. The inexperienced midfield of Owen Williams, Joe Hawkins and debutant Mason Grady contains only seven caps but is tasked with ensuring there is no repeat of the wastefulness shown in the first two rounds.
Who knows where the hosts will be psychologically, but an English visit to Cardiff usually galvanises even the most woebegone Welsh. There will certainly be no need for Gatland to manufacture any kind of siege mentality within a squad that has no shortage of pent-up frustration.
“You kind of love it when things aren’t going go well off the field and there is a lot of noise going on,” England hooker Jamie George explained, citing his own experiences at Saracens after the club was punished for breaching the salary cap.
“What it can do is really rally you and make you a stronger unit – it is us against the world, let’s go out and do it and prove some people wrong. I am sure those are the sort of messages people like Alun Wyn [Jones] are giving out this week. We are expecting the best possible Wales team, a very passionate team and one that is driven to win.”
England have insisted they have remained focussed on the job at hand, not letting uncertainty’s creep infringe upon Steve Borthwick’s insistence on building steadily by doing the basics well.
Among this week’s focus points, according to Borthwick, are generating quicker ball and avoiding the final quarter drop-offs that again recurred against Scotland and Italy. Anthony Watson returns to an England starting shirt for the first time in almost two years on the wing, while Courtney Lawes is a figure of significant importance on the bench.
The visitors would rarely travel west with any degree of expectation, but survey the state of Wales and England will fancy their chances. Yet if ever there was a fixture to rouse the Welsh rabble, this would be it – and, as Dylan Thomas urged, Wales will not go gentle into the good night.
Italy vs Ireland
A new role for Johnny Sexton in Round Three, with the injured fly-half playing Ireland’s chaperone on a weekend away in Rome. Sexton will travel with the Ireland team as Ross Byrne and James Ryan are offered opportunities to step up as fly half and captain respectively.
Byrne’s half-back combination of contrasts with Craig Casey worked efficiently in closing out victory against France, with Andy Farrell now hoping to see the pair keep Italy at arm’s length as England largely managed to in the first half two weeks ago. Having matched their first two opponents for long periods, Italy will be keen on a faster start after letting both France and England take early scoreboard ascendancy.
France vs Scotland
An element of the unknown for both France and Scotland, with the hosts bidding to bounce back from a first defeat in a long while and the visitors rather unaccustomed to their place as championship challengers after two rounds.
France went about their business in a very professional way when these two sides met at Murrayfield last year. Absorbing everything that Scotland had to throw at them, there was no panic in a win that felt quietly important as a young side grew. Now, a different test, as they look to respond to that loss to Ireland. Might it have reopened old wounds? Scotland will certainly stress the stitches with their wide attack.