Monday 17 December 2018

Free-flowing philosophy unites Wales for Six Nations tilt

Robert Howley
Robert Howley

Paul Rees

Robert Howley will put a close friendship on hold in the first week of the Six Nations as Wales, who finished fifth last season after losing three matches for only the second time in 10 years, prepare for Scotland in Cardiff.

Howley got to know the Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, who will be taking charge of his first match in the championship after succeeding Vern Cotter last summer, during the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. They should have been half-back partners in the Test series but Howley was injured in Durban a week before the opener and was ruled out of the tour.

"Gregor is a good friend who came to my wedding," says the Wales attack coach who was part of the Lions management team in New Zealand last summer, his third successive tour as a coach after 2009 and 2013.

"He has done a great job since taking charge of Scotland and they enjoyed some outstanding victories in the autumn. They will come to Cardiff in buoyant mood, even though they have a few injuries in the front-row.

"I think it will be a cracking game, as they always tend to be when Wales and Scotland meet.

"The rugby is usually fast and furious: we came up short against them in the contact area last year at Murrayfield and the key is to be controlled in your own structure."

For once, Wales are going into the championship without having to apologise for the performances of their sides in the European Champions Cup. The Scarlets and Ospreys went into the final round of group matches knowing victory would guarantee them a place in the quarter-finals. And while the latter ultimately came up short, the former are playing the free-flowing, offloading game Wales aspire to.

"We have encouraged that approach since coming back from New Zealand in 2016," says Howley. "That was a watershed tour for us, and when we got back we got all the regional coaches together and asked them to work on their front five players passing the ball. You can now see the ambition and intent and it is a long time since we had two Welsh regions in the mix in the final weekend of the European Cup.

"The Scarlets are fantastic to watch. Players like Aaron Shingler and James Davies [flankers who are in the Wales squad] have been outstanding. We have real strength in depth in the back-row but what the Scarlets have also shown in Europe is an ability to play the game in several ways. They have been solid in defence and strong in the set-pieces. That is what we will be looking for in the Six Nations."

A conundrum for Wales is the full-back Leigh Halfpenny, one of the best goal-kickers and defenders in the world who, after joining Toulon, lost the attacking spark he had shown in the final Lions Test in Australia in 2013. As an attacking force he is behind rivals Liam Williams, Hallam Amos and Rhys Patchell, but the decision to leave him out will not be taken easily with the centre Jonathan Davies missing and the wing George North feeling his way back after injury. "Without being disrespectful to where he came from [last summer], it is a different game here," says Howley.

"Leigh is being encouraged to play from the back and I am not sure that was the message in France. As we saw with Jonathan [when he was at Clermont Auvergne] as well as Leigh, they were burying themselves in rucks rather than being on their feet and playing. They are now with a side that plays rugby and they are not automated.

"The Six Nations is all about winning and our squad reflects that. We have not won it for a long time and that is very much at the forefront of our minds."

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