Dan Biggar’s recall illustrates Wales planning for physical game
Warren Gatland admits Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will be put under pressure
Dan Biggar: the outhalf’s return should improve Wales’ aerial game. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
This will be Warren Gatland’s 100th game in charge of Wales, but he played this down on Tuesday. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters
The amount of insider information and crossover in coaching methods involving any Ireland-Wales game has only intensified recently given the make-up on and of the pitch in the last two Lions tours. Even leaving that side, it wouldn’t take much thought from opposing coaches to figure out that Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are a fairly influential half-back pairing.
Having settled on the Irish pairing for the second and third Tests in New Zealand against the All Blacks – which yielded one win and one draw – Warren Gatland’s respect for the threat posed by the pair is manifest, and on Tuesday he made no secret of Wales’ need to shut them down.
We have got to put Conor and his kicking game under pressure. We have to be prepared to be pretty physical against them.”
“We’ve got to attack them. We’ve had some pretty good success not allowing Johnny too much time and space on the ball. Our line-speed defensively has got to be good. We have got to put Conor and his kicking game under pressure. We have to be prepared to be pretty physical against them.”
“I thought the way Wales played at home against them last year was outstanding, the kind of model and benchmark to take to Ireland.
“We have got to be physical against them up-front and stop the running power of someone like CJ Stander, who’s a big go-forward player for them, and stop allowing Murray and Sexton to dominate the game. If we can do that we have got a chance.”
It is with this in mind that Gatland and the Welsh think tank have recalled the combative Dan Biggar, the outhalf returning a fortnight ahead of schedule after he suffered a shoulder injury playing for the Ospreys against Clermont Auvergne on January 20th.
After the events of Twickenham, when Rhys Patchell had an unhappy afternoon and England comprehensively won the aerial battle, Biggar’s presence alone ought to improve Wales immeasurably in this regard, given his ability to claim possession in the air, both in defence and when chasing his own kicks. On top of which, he leads the defensive effort quickly and puts his body on the line.
“There’s a little bit of that. He’s been a part of those recent performances and results against Ireland. He’s done well and we know how good he is in the air defensively and on attack. The way Ireland defend, they’re pretty narrow and they’re hard to break down. You have got to have a good running, attacking game against Ireland but also a good kicking game.”
In addition, the return of two other Lions, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny, ought to make Wales much stronger in the aerial contest, with George North on the bench along with Gareth Anscombe, as Steff Evans is retained and Patchell misses out.
“We thought our kicking game against Scotland was very good and our kick chase, shutting down the threat of Stuart Hogg, but it was something that was disappointing at Twickenham,” said Gatland.
“We weren’t great in the air and, in fairness to England, it was probably the difference between the two sides in terms of their aerial dominance. Liam is pretty good in the air, having George on the bench and having Dan and Leigh Halfpenny – we’ve added more experience and players who are comfortable in those situations.”
Ireland unveil their hand on Thursday, but Gatland maintained: “I haven’t thought about their selection. They’ve probably got a decision to make at 13, whether that’s Farrell or somebody else in the squad. They’re a quality side and we know how difficult they are to beat.”
“We’re pretty happy with our record against them over the last four or five games. I think they’ve beaten us once in the last five occasions and one was a draw. They tend to be close encounters. We know it’s a massive, must-win game, in Dublin against a team that are difficult to get the ball off. They’re comfortable playing through lots of phases, they’ve got an excellent kicking game, their nine and ten combination is probably one of the best in world rugby. We’ve got a job to do to try and shut them down.”
This will be Gatland’s 100th game in charge of Wales, but he played this down. “It’s a nice milestone. It’s a nice honour but it’s just something to reflect back on. This weekend is about the game, it’s about the players, it’s about the performance and the result. That’s more important than me reaching 100 games.”
Asked what advice he’d give to any young coach, Gatland said: “Do your best to deal with the media as positively as possible. That’s been my downfall, I think! You live and learn.”
WALES (v Ireland): Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Liam Williams (Saracens), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Steff Evans (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Gareth Davies (Scarlets); Rob Evans (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Samson Lee (Scarlets); Cory Hill (Dragons), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys capt); Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester).
Replacements: Elliot Dee (Dragons), Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Thomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Bradley Davies (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Aled Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Anscombe (Blues), George North (Northampton).