Friday 23 February 2018

Welsh boss welcomes Six Nations distraction from politics

Wales captain Sam Warburton
Wales captain Sam Warburton

Chris Hewitt

Sam Warburton is in an advanced state of uncertainty – the Wales captain has no clear idea of whether he will be fit enough to face Italy in the first leg of his country's ground-breaking Six Nations quest at the Millennium Stadium in nine days' time, and does not have the faintest clue as to where he might be playing his club rugby next season.

What he does know is that he and his red-shirted brethren are in a good place to defend their title, despite the catastrophic failure of sporting governance west of the River Severn.

Warburton is being pulled three ways on the contract front – Cardiff Blues want the flanker to stay with them; the Welsh Rugby Union want to put him under lock and key; clubs in England and France crave his signature – but he may not choose between his suitors until the end of the biggest annual tournament in the world game.

As for the ravaged nerve in his shoulder, the man who led the Lions to a much-needed series victory in Australia last summer sounded equally philosophical.

"I haven't ticked the contact box yet and, until I do that, I can't move on to the next stage," he admitted.

For all that, Warburton seemed blissfully serene about the challenge of helping Wales secure an unprecedented hat-trick of championship titles. The principality may be experiencing the torments of rugby hell as the conflict between the governing body and its four professional regional teams continues unabated, but when it comes to putting on a show in the Test arena, the nation somehow comes together in a common gladiatorial spirit.

"In a strange way, I think the players find life in the Wales camp a nice distraction from everything that's going on outside," explained head coach Warren Gatland.

"We spoke about this issue when we got together earlier in the week. I said there are things we can't control, can't fix, and there are things we can control. And that's the point. The Wales camp is a happy camp; what is absolutely clear to me is the sense of pride the players have in pulling on the shirt.

"The third title is a real focus for us. There are players in the group who will tell you that they've continually had the success of the 1970s Wales team rammed down their throats. That was four decades ago. It's about time a new era dawned."

Not that Gatland is in any way oblivious to the rancour eating its way through Welsh rugby's body politic. The Kiwi acknowledged that basic economics was at the heart of the problem and tacitly accepted that more leading players would desert the regions for better-paid work in the cash-rich leagues of England and France.

"If players aren't going to stay in Wales I'd prefer them to go to France than to England, purely because they can negotiate full release for international training and fixtures. That's more difficult to do with the Premiership clubs," he said. "But it's still tough for us to see players leaving the country.

"Can we cope with losing some of our top players at 27 or 28 because they head for France in search of a pension? I'm not sure."

It was a powerful point, very well made. Wales are perfectly capable of landing that third successive title, despite their difficult trips to Dublin and Twickenham, but Six Nations glory will not provide the really big questions with serious answers. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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