Same again for Wales as Gatland exudes confidence
Head coach retains team that started against Scotland for daunting Twickenham test
Warren Gatland: “We do not have any fear about going there, just excitement.” Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
If Wales show the same composure and quick-thinking that Warren Gatland displayed during his team announcement for Saturday’s match at Twickenham, England’s six-year home unbeaten record in the tournament will come under threat.
After the head coach had said the decision to keep faith with the side that had started the 34-7 victory over Scotland in the opening round took very little time despite the availability of two Lions in the back three, George North and Liam Williams, he was asked repeated questions about England and his opposite number, Eddie Jones.
The invitation was to lob a grenade or two over the wall of England’s training base in Bagshot but Gatland preferred to garland the Six Nations champions – who are looking to equal their tournament record of five successive victories over Wales – with praise while permitting himself a couple of quips.
Jones’s response to being asked questions about opponents is to reply: “I’m the coach of England, mate,” and move on.
But Gatland fielded every one, with the subjects ranging from Jones and his ambition to get England to the top of the world rankings by next year’s World Cup to Owen Farrell and whether he noticed on last year’s Lions tour to New Zealand an improvement in the England players compared with his two previous tours.
“I’m intrigued by watching Eddie,” said Gatland, “the way he prepares and how he goes about doing things. You learn as much as you possibly can from others as the game changes. He doesn’t need to nick anything from me. I’m the one learning from him. He’s done a great job so I’m watching him particularly closely.
“You can’t argue with his ambition or their record in the past couple of seasons. Getting to No 1 has definitely been their target and we’ll know by the autumn [when New Zealand visit Twickenham]. That’s going to be interesting. You set yourself up for a big game and then you potentially become No 1 or someone pulls your pants down.”
Asked whether he had noticed a greater confidence in the England Lions last summer compared to the previous tours he had been on, he answered: “I didn’t because it is the first time they’ve had a few English players!”
And when the follow-up was whether he thought Jones would be interested in coaching the Lions in South Africa in 2021, he quickly shot back: “He’ll do a great job if he’s Lions coach: 3-0 will be expected. It’s probably the easiest of the three tours, isn’t it.”
A couple of years ago, there was an edginess to Gatland as Wales struggled to repeat the success of his first five years. This time he had the calm assurance of a coach who expects his players to put themselves in a position to win on Saturday despite the absence of eight Lions.
“England are a very good, rounded side,” he said. “We will be taking on an absolutely massive pack at Twickenham and it will be an incredible test. We will have to be at our best to stop them. They are very positive in the way they play and they have some serious speed and attacking threats out wide with creativeness at 10 and 12.
“The only change we see is Jonathan Joseph coming back in at 13 and the key for us is to go there with confidence and self-belief and not be intimidated by the Twickenham factor. We trained against the England pack in Bristol in the autumn and that was good.
“Everyone talks about the dislike of the English, but I think the relationship between Wales and England has always been close. It’s a big brother-little brother thing, but it’s rugby that brings the two nations together.”
Gatland named his first unchanged side since the last Six Nations visit to Twickenham two years ago. North, who on Friday started his first match for Northampton since October, returns to the bench, where he will cover the wing and centre, but Williams has returned to Saracens after recovering from an abdominal strain. The secondrow Cory Hill, who left the field against Scotland for a head injury assessment and did not return, is expected to resume full training on Thursday.
“The selection meeting took very little time as we felt the starting side against Scotland deserved another chance,” said Gatland. “We were very happy with Josh Adams’s debut [on the wing] and if we are going to find out about a player at the next level, it will be this weekend.”
WALES: L Halfpenny (Scarlets); J Adams (Worcester), S Williams (Scarlets), H Parkes (Scarlets), S Evans (Scarlets); R Patchell (Scarlets), G Davies (Scarlets); R Evans (Scarlets), K Owens (Scarlets), S Lee (Scarlets), C Hill (Dragons), A W Jones (Ospreys, capt), A Shingler (Scarlets), J Navidi (Cardiff Blues), R Moriarty (Gloucester). Replacements: E Dee (Dragons), W Jones (Scarlets), T Francis (Exeter), B Davies (Ospreys), J Tipuric (Ospreys), A Davies (Scarlets), G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), G North (Northampton).