Monday 18 December 2017

Wales success down to fitness levels, says coach Warren Gatland

WALES coach Warren Gatland has hailed finely-tuned fitness levels as a key factor behind his side's current success.

Wales today climbed into the top five of world rugby before their twin assault on the RBS 6 Nations title and Grand Slam glory.

A dramatic 19-12 victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday not only clinched the Triple Crown for Gatland's squad, but also saw them make a move in the International Rugby Board world rankings.

Wales are fifth behind world champions New Zealand, Australia, France and South Africa after putting themselves two home wins away from a second unbeaten Six Nations campaign of Gatland's four-year reign.

The top four countries at the end of this year will be the seeded teams at the World Cup in England in 2015.

Much has been made of the Wales players' supreme fitness honed at punishing pre-World Cup and Six Nations training camps in Poland, and it continues to serve them well.

"I think we are pretty good conditioning-wise," Gatland said. "I think that the fitter you get, your skills improve as well and your decision-making improves.

"I have prioritised fitness for the whole four years really, and there have been times when the players have come into a Wales camp knowing they are not really in good enough shape to take on other teams.

"The significant turning point for us was the preparation for the World Cup, when we basically hammered home the conditioning and the fitness."

World Cup semi-finalists Wales will secure Six Nations silverware if they beat Italy and principal title rivals France in Cardiff next month, and Gatland believes their tense Twickenham triumph cannot be understated.

"I think it is a significant result," he added. "To win and come through games like that does give you the self-belief, because it was a dogfight.

"We've now come through two games like that in this championship, at Twickenham and in Ireland.

"Perhaps in the past we would have capitulated (at Twickenham) or lacked that self-belief, but there is an attitude now that the players back their conditioning and never give up.

"I thought England played really well. They were close to scoring a couple of times, but our scramble defence on our line kept us in the game and our scrum was excellent.

"We put their scrum under a bit of pressure and we handled their driven lineout pretty well, too.

"In the past, England have sometimes had dominance in their scrum and driven lineout against Wales, but we were able to negate them in those areas this time."

Wales ended the England clash with eight players aged 23 or under on the pitch, including match-winner Scott Williams and skipper Sam Warburton, and Gatland is enthused about what the future might hold.

"I think we are going to be a good team," he added. "We've got the attributes you are looking for to be a top-quality side - big, fast, good shape and reasonably skilful - so we've got a chance of being a really good side.

"When you have got that starting point, you should expect to win a lot of games.

"We've also got younger players showing maturity beyond their years, and they don't have that fear factor at the moment."

Wales hooker Huw Bennett, meanwhile, has confirmed he will play club rugby in France next season.

The Ospreys forward, who has 51 caps, said on Twitter that he will join French Top-14 side Lyon.

Bennett, 28, was first-choice Wales hooker at the World Cup last autumn, but missed Saturday's Twickenham encounter due to a calf muscle injury.

Bennett tweeted: "I want to thank the Ospreys & our awesome supporters for a fantastic 9 years! Been there from its inception & will always hold a special place in my heart.

"Looking forward to my new challenge of playing in France with Lyon. Until then, I am fully committed to ending the season on a high & with some silverware for ospreylia!"

Bennett is the latest Wales international to agree a cross-channel switch.

Mike Phillips, James Hook and Lee Byrne began respective careers with Bayonne, Perpignan and Clermont Auvergne after the World Cup, while prop Gethin Jenkins confirmed last week that he is heading to France after agreeing what is understood to be a move to Toulon.

World Cup lock Luke Charteris, currently injured, is also expected to join the exodus, and Newport Gwent Dragons wing Aled Brew - another World Cup squad member - is heading to Biarritz.

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