Friday 21 September 2018

Gatland asserts his authority as Italy sense rare opportunity

Warren Gatland publicly questioned the wisdom of selecting Dan Biggar at outhalf against Ireland. Photo: Getty Images
Warren Gatland publicly questioned the wisdom of selecting Dan Biggar at outhalf against Ireland. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Rees

Mum has not been the word in the Wales camp in the build-up to today's Mother's Day match against Italy at the Principality Stadium, a sideshow involving the also-rans or, in the case of the Azzurri so far, non-starters.

"I would like to think we could win quite comfortably," says the Wales centre Owen Watkin, who will make his first start in the Six Nations, one of 10 personnel changes from the last-round defeat in Dublin. When Wales have taken a scalpel to selection in the past its edge has been blunt and they have not taken comfort in the performances, such as against Georgia last November or Japan a year before .

"You are damned if you do and damned if you don't," says the Wales attack coach, Robert Howley, when asked if making so many changes to a side already without Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Webb was disrespecting the opposition. If you cannot have a stock-take against a side that have lost their last 15 matches in the Six Nations, when can you?

The Italy head coach, Conor O'Shea, does not take Wales's remodelling as an insult. He should feel relieved as he scours for his first victory in the Six Nations since taking charge two summers ago and, if Italy either win or come close to doing so for the first time in Cardiff, he may have a different take. In his playing days he was capped by his opposite number, Warren Gatland, who was in charge of Ireland between 1998 and 2001, and he has a deep respect for the New Zealander.

Gatland confidently predicted at the Six Nations launch that Wales would win the title for the first time since 2013 but, with two rounds to go, they are playing for the consolation prizes after defeats away to England and Ireland in matches that were in the balance in the closing seconds. In political terms they were only a small swing away from going into this weekend on top.

There is a sense of Gatland asserting his authority in selection. He publicly questioned the wisdom of selecting Dan Biggar at flyhalf against Ireland after he had missed the first two matches through injury. He has often deferred to his specialist coaches in his 10 years in charge but the way he went out of his way to reveal he had told Biggar's replacement, Gareth Anscombe, before the Ireland match that he was not sure they had made he right call at 10, suggested that he would have preferred Anscombe in the position at the start of the tournament ahead of Rhys Patchell.

The Wales team are a rugby world away from the brawny line-ups they fielded when they were at their peak, like a fen to a mountain: Watkin may be raw but he has the footballing instincts of the players the country produced a couple of generations ago. Gatland has picked a team to run and keep running: he has opted for two openside flankers in Justin Tipuric and the uncapped James Davies, has left out his three best goal-kickers and has omitted his captain, Alun Wyn Jones, a player who can hold the team together when they are in danger of falling apart.

Davies and Tipuric are both ancillary three-quarters, revelling in open spaces. Wales will need to guard rucks, with Sergio Parisse past his best but still influential, and Sebastian Negri blessed with an eye for an opportunity and the power to exploit it. Italy may not have won in the Six Nations since Jacques Brunel was in charge but they had their moments against England , crafting two tries, and went one better in Dublin , albeit after trailing by 28 points at the break.

The defeat in Marseille in the last round showcased their vulnerability. They lost concentration at vital moments in defence and attack in losing 34-17 against France but O'Shea has blooded players, such as the full-back Matteo Minozzi and the flanker Negri, who have made an impact. O'Shea's problem is that Italy's strength has been individual rather than collective. It may be the same for Wales who, while picking a side to play fast and wide, have included only four players from the region who have patented the approach in Wales, the Scarlets, although Liam Williams and George North are both alumni. Victory is not a given against a side who matched them for 50 minutes last season.

O'Shea, who confined himself to one change from Marseille, will use Wales' selection as a spur for his players but they will need to control possession and snare their opponents between desire and reality. Two years ago Wales recorded the mother of all victories over the Azzurri, piling up 67 points in the match before O'Shea's takeover. It is unlikely to be so easy this time.

Observer

Wales v Italy

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