Friday 20 April 2018

Gatland's old dogs ideally suited for this hard road

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Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Wales head coach Warren Gatland Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It's testament to the unique attraction of the Six Nations that this opening weekend has been welcomed like the first light of a new dawn. We get all excited about World Cup cycles and age profiles and how to marry the two. Then the Championship rolls around, the sold-out signs go up, and nobody can see farther than the 80th minute. If that changes then the rugby world will be a lesser place.

So the anticipation of what Wales will bring is as keen as ever, and in part we can thank former Ireland coach Warren Gatland. Not for the first time, he has set the agenda coming into a Six Nations game. It may be the first time, however, that a coach was so explicit in doing so.

We can't remember an instance where a selection was ascribed specifically to who was refereeing rather than who was playing. So in picking loosehead Rob Evans (three caps) ahead of Gethin Jenkins (119 caps), Gatland said it was largely to do with keeping Jerome Garces happy. Whereupon he added what a great bloke Jerome is and how he's right up there with Nigel Owens.

You'd need to know Gatland's true opinion of Owens to decide if that's a compliment or an insult, but if it's the latter then it was delivered with a subtlety not readily associated with Gatty's game. He loves this stuff: trying to manipulate referees and opposing coaches, and basking in the aftershock if a few bombs go off. And there will be plenty of those today.

If you're coming out of the Aviva talking about the game in the same way as you would have been gushing over Super Saturday last March then something remarkable will have happened. This will not be great to look at. First, the wet and windy weather will militate against an open game with a low error count. And second, it's questionable if either side would go down that route anyway.

The absence of Rob Kearney will encourage Dan Biggar to get after Simon Zebo as soon as possible. Surface to air missiles would be a useful weapon in the armoury of the Munster man for whom wing is a happier home. On the flip side, Gareth Anscombe, making his Six Nations debut, has been picked to bang back with interest whatever Johnny Sexton puts into Welsh territory.

It's hard to see Ireland coming out of this fight with their noses intact. Injury has torn the backside out of Joe Schmidt's pack, where, depending on how you rate Iain Henderson, six starters are gone between short term, long term and period. Paul O'Connell is the only man in the third category, and how Alun Wyn Jones will be glad to see the back of him.

The Wales back five, along with their midfield, is exceptional, and four of them (Justin Tipuric is the exception) started the World Cup quarter-final against Ireland back in 2011. Jamie Heaslip is Ireland's only survivor today from that crew. This has all the hallmarks of a day when the old dog is ideal for the hard road. And that ain't Ireland.

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