Tuesday 17 January 2017

Gatland begins mind games by labelling Ireland favourites

Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30

Wales head coach Warren Gatland (PA)
Wales head coach Warren Gatland (PA)

This time around, Warren Gatland chose the love-bombing approach. The sting came in the squad he named.

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Three weeks out from Ireland's Six Nations opener against his team, the Wales coach installed Ireland as favourites for the Six Nations as he unveiled a panel of players that will do their utmost to derail Joe Schmidt's side's three-in-a-row bid at the Aviva Stadium.

That opening game will have been circled by both coaches from a long way out. For Wales, it is the door that opens out into a world of possibilities given their three home fixtures in a row against Scotland, France and Italy before they go to Twickenham.

For Ireland, however, the fixture is laced with danger. Six days after they meet the sizeable force of the Welsh, Schmidt's men head for Paris before they meet England away.

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While David Nucifora has set Ireland the target of retaining their title, most would be content with three home wins and something on the road.

Thus, the Wales game can make or break the first half of 2016. A win would restore the feel-good factor that has been crushed by the provinces' European struggles.

Schmidt has big decisions to make. He names his captain today, but replacing Paul O'Connell in the second-row is a conundrum. He is without Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony and Tommy Bowe, while Mike Ross and Cian Healy are in a race to be fit in time for the opener. Robbie Henshaw could return this week, but he and Jared Payne have played very little rugby.

Gatland, however, has no such problems. His pack is at full-strength and looks strong in every position, while behind the scrum he has been able to restore some of the stars whose loss to injury derailed his World Cup bid.

Liam Williams is unlikely to return from injury in time for the opener, while Scott Williams and Leigh Halfpenny remain absent, but the coach is happy with where his team are.

"We are in a good place at the moment," Gatland said. "We have got some players who have come back from injury. We have still got one or two players who picked up injuries at the World Cup. But 31 of this squad were involved in the World Cup, so there's a lot of continuity and we go into this tournament with a lot of confidence and self-belief.

"The first-up game against Ireland, away from home, is obviously massive for us. If we can get a victory there, it sets us up nicely for the home game against Scotland. Our whole focus is on Ireland away. It's going to be a pretty tough game and we have been slow starters in this tournament traditionally, so we know it's important that we do start well.

"After the last two World Cups, particularly 2012, was a continuation of the five months we'd had together previously. That helped us perform. There won't be too many changes this tournament, but hopefully the time that we've had together we will be able to come together pretty quickly and start the campaign well.

"We are confident if we don't pick up too many injuries and have some continuity from where we finished off at the World Cup that we can do well."

For all that Gatland is happy, he wasn't about to start making bold predictions ahead of what many are touting as a shoot-out for the Lions head-coaching job. Instead, he was happy to play the underdog and put the pressure on Ireland's shoulders.

"The thing about the Irish is they would like to go in with people writing them off," Gatland said. "They have won the Championship the last two years, so they have to go in as favourites to defend their crown, given the experience they have and knowing how to win, particularly under pressure.

"You write them off at your peril. The turnaround in Munster's performance after a very disappointing display against Stade Francais in Paris shows the desire the Irish are able to produce.

"We go into this tournament respecting them immensely and particularly given what they've achieved under Joe Schmidt the last two seasons. Taking on the defending champions away from home is going to be a huge challenge."

Schmidt won't respond to Gatland's comments when he names his squad by email today as he sticks to his low-key approach to the tournament. He will meet the media for the first time since the World Cup defeat to Argentina at the Six Nations launch next Wednesday.

Yesterday gave him a chance to assess the strengths of both his first two opponents, with France coach Guy Noves leaving Mathieu Bastareaud out of his 31-man squad, with Jean-Marc Doussain and uncapped Sevens specialist Virimi Vakatawa called up.

Scotland coach Vern Cotter named uncapped props Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland in his squad for the tournament.

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