Posts Tagged ‘Warren Gatland’

Friday February 21, 3:00 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

Friday night rugby returns to the Six Nations this weekend, and the atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium will be electric. The big news today is that Wales coach Warren Gatland has made the decision that many were expecting – he has dropped scrumhalf Mike Phillips in favor of Rhys Webb. Gatland had some rather stern words for Phillips, saying: “We weren’t happy with Mike’s performance against Ireland and we think it’s a big opportunity for Rhys… [Phillips] got a bit confrontational with Conor Murray and this is an opportunity for him to have a think about that.” Welsh fans will be hoping that Webb can inject some much needed pace in attack, and that he will make sensible decisions at the back of the ruck.

The other change in the backs sees George North move in from wing to outside center – this is essentially an enforced change as Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, and Ashley Beck are all injured. Liam Williams takes North’s place on the wing. Even though North has limited experience at 13, the French should be worried. From a French perspective, no good can come from North getting his hands on the ball more than he already does. The French defense was not particularly impressive against England in Week 1, and North’s opposite number Mathieu Bastareaud is not quick enough to deal with North in space. So France should look to take away that space by slowing down Welsh ball, allowing more time for defensive realignment.

France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has made one change, bringing in Wenceslas Lauret at flanker in place of Bernard le Roux, who has not recovered from the concussion he suffered against Italy. But one wonders if there is also a tactical element to the change, considering Lauret is about 4 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than le Roux. Perhaps Saint-Andre sees an opportunity for his back row to get low over the ball and outwork the Welsh at the breakdown, rather than relying on pure power.

So much will depend on the quality of ball Wales are able to produce, and how effectively Webb uses it, but I have a feeling that they will get the job done. The Welsh players are hurting badly after the manner of the defeat to Ireland – Adam Jones said the squad was “pretty embarrassed” – and they will be desperate to put things right in front of the Cardiff crowd. This could be quite an entertaining spectacle, but ultimately I see Wales by 7

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Paris:

It was a slightly strange weekend in this great tournament, as none of the three matches were remotely close. The Ireland v Wales result was certainly the most surprising – Ireland were utterly dominant 26-3 winners in what had been expected to be a tight contest. It is incredible that Peter O’Mahony is only 24 years old – he was born to play Test rugby. Already captain of Munster, he is surely a future Ireland captain as well. The whole Irish team is playing very well at the moment, and all eyes will now turn toward the England game in two weeks’ time. What a battle of packs that will be.

Meanwhile, Warren Gatland said: “It was the most disappointing performance from us since I have been the Wales coach. The test now for us is how we bounce back and show character.” The big question now is whether there will be major changes in personnel ahead of France’s visit to Cardiff on Friday the 21st. One man whose place must surely be under threat is scrumhalf Mike Phillips, who is still too slow clearing the ball from the base of rucks, and let his frustration boil over several times on Saturday.

England were impressive in beating Scotland 20-0, but it was more a case of the Scots playing poorly. Sir Clive Woodward (who coached England to the 2003 World Cup) wrote in the Daily Mail: “Saturday was a sad day for Scottish sport and their rugby team have never been worse. That team would fail to beat a single club in the Aviva Premiership and a second-string England side would have won comfortably.” There is some serious soul-searching going on in Scottish rugby at the moment, and no one seems to be sure what the right solution is.

England will be confident going into the Ireland game, but how much can they take from a result against such poor opposition? Coach Stuart Lancaster and captain Chris Robshaw have expressed frustration that they didn’t win even more comfortably, which is exactly the right attitude to have.

Finally, Italy were only 9-3 down at halftime in Paris, but were then blown away by France in the second half, conceding 3 tries in 9 minutes. It was really not much of a game – the first 40 minutes were dreadful, then France won the game, and the last 25 minutes will be remembered more for two players being shown red cards (the first in the Six Nations since 2006) than for any of the rugby that was played.

The competition takes a break next weekend, but at least Super Rugby returns, with two games from South Africa on Saturday morning.

Below, the Ireland v Wales highlights:

Saturday February 1, 9:30 AM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

This is the most uneven of the weekend’s fixtures on paper – Wales is favored by around 20 points – and the match could be even more lopsided than that. The Welsh Rugby Union announced this morning that the roof at the Millennium will be closed, a condition which will hopefully encourage the Welsh to play a more attacking, open style – the exact opposite of what the Italians want.

Italy will field a starting XV composed of a pack with a massive 587 combined caps, and a backline with just 115 caps between them – perhaps the largest disparity ever in an international rugby team. Injuries have forced coach Jacques Brunel to pick a very inexperienced backline – Angelo Esposito makes his debut on one wing, while on the other wing, Leonardo Sarto will make just his third appearance for the Azzurri. At outside center, Michele Campagnaro will also be making his third appearance, while flyhalf Tommaso Allen is the relative veteran of this young group, playing in his fourth Test. The experience of scrumhalf Edoardo Gori, inside center Alberto Sgarbi, and fullback Luke McLean will be vital as Italy seek to contain the huge threat of the Welsh backline, currently the most potent attacking force in the Northern Hemisphere.

For Wales, British and Irish Lion Jonathan Davies misses out on selection, as he is just coming back from a pectoral injury he suffered against South Africa during the Autumn Tests. But Davies has a very talented deputy in Scott Williams, and otherwise the Welsh are at full strength in the backs. In the pack, captain Sam Warburton has been judged only fit enough to make the bench, so Justin Tipuric, a more traditional 7, slots into the back row alongside Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. Lock Alun-Wyn Jones takes over the captaincy. Lydiate will be under some scrutiny, as he has been in poor form for his club, Racing Metro, where he has been required to do more ball-carrying than he is used to. Loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins is just returning to fitness after a recurrence of his persistent calf problem, so Paul James starts in his place.

For Italy to keep this one close, they will need to keep the game as tight as possible through the forwards, and go hard at the breakdown to slow down Welsh ball. Everyone in the rugby world knows how good Italian number 8 Sergio Parisse is, but his back row colleague Alessandro Zanni is also a fine player, and they are joined by another wily veteran in Mauro Bergamasco. These three will have to dig deep into the bag of tricks they’ve assembled over a combined 276 Test matches for Italy. The trouble is that the Welsh back row is also very good, and very balanced. Essentially, Lydiate is the tackling machine, Tipuric is the turnover specialist, and Faletau is the primary ball carrier – when they are all in form, they compliment each other so well, and it is a beautiful thing to watch.

Unfortunately for the Italians, with the roof closed, there are likely to be fewer handling errors, and thus fewer scrums. Welsh tighthead Adam Jones, the rock of the Welsh scrum for so many years, has admittedly struggled with the new scrum laws, and the Italians will be confident at scrum time. But how many opportunities will they get? Neutrals will be hoping Italy put in a big performance to make this match competitive, but I just can’t see it happening. Wales by 25

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Rome:

Friday November 22, 2:30 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The fourth weekend of the Autumn Internationals gets underway Friday evening as a new-look Wales takes on Tonga. Wales has been hit hard by injuries, particularly in the backs, so Warren Gatland will start with Ashley Beck and Owen Williams (who have only 8 caps between them) in the centers, while 19-year old Hallam Amos makes his debut on the wing.

With one eye on the match against Australia next weekend, Gatland has also shuffled his pack – only Rhodri Jones at tighthead and Justin Tipuric at openside keep their places from the match against Argentina. Paul James and Ken Owens come in at loosehead and hooker, respectively, while there is an all-new second row combination of Luke Charteris and Ian Evans. In the back row, Andrew Coombs replaces Sam Warburton at blindside, and Ryan Jones replaces Toby Faletau at number 8. (Coombs may yet succumb to a back injury, in which case Dan Lydiate is likely to start.) In Warburton’s absence, Jones will captain the side, as he has done on 32 previous occasions.

Of all the changes to the Welsh team, the most interesting both for Welsh supporters and neutrals is the inclusion of the extremely talented James Hook at flyhalf. In recent years Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland have been preferred to Hook, who now plays his club rugby in France at Perpignan. Former Wales flyhalf (and now BBC pundit) Jonathan Davies has recently advocated for the inclusion of the versatile Hook, calling him a “natural rugby player,” and saying: “I think he plays well in open, loose games where he’s just reactive to what’s coming at him and he does have great instinct.”

It is likely to be just that sort of game, and I expect Hook to shine. Tonga will bring their trademark physicality and aggression, but if Wales can weather the storm over the first 20 minutes or so, they should run away with this one. Wales by 20+

 

 

The Tongan war dance - the Sipi Tau

The Tongan pre-match war dance – the Sipi Tau