Six Nations: ‘Expectations on Wales will go through the roof’
The Welsh may not be favourites, but they have become more difficult to read
England’s Sam Simmonds runs in to score their fourth try against Italy. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
It has rarely paid to dismiss a team coached by Warren Gatland. It is 10 years since his side confounded expectation by winning at Twickenham for the first time in 20 years in his first match as head coach. And the manner of Wales’s weekend victory against a Scotland side, that for once went into a Six Nations campaign armed with expectation rather than hope, makes the excursion across the Severn Bridge this Saturday all the more intriguing.
England, whose last defeat at Twickenham in the tournament was against Wales in 2012, will still be the favourites. However, as bookmakers reacted to Wales’s bonus-point victory by halving their odds to win the title, it will be a belief fertilised by Gatland having outmanoeuvred his opposite number, Gregor Townsend, who was making his Six Nations debut as head coach.
England’s Eddie Jones will take more outwitting but Gatland the icono-clast has been reinvigorated by the drawn series between the British & Irish Lions and New Zealand last year. He was without seven players who were on that tour, along with three others, and while the wings Liam Williams and George North should be available for Saturday, the freedom Wales played with and their lack of fear of making mistakes will mean changes are kept to a minimum.
“There was no expectation on us against Scotland,” Gatland said. “A lot of ex-Wales media people were writing us off before the match: we were crap. Now expectations will go through the roof – something you have to deal with here. We have not been afraid of going to Twickenham since I have been involved with Wales and we have one more day to prepare than them. It is a mouth-watering fixture now and I hope a few people sit up and take notice.”
Wales were expected to look to stifle a team that thrive in broken play and exploit their greater experience up front. Instead they outplayed Scotland at their own game, forcing errors through a defence that relied on shape more than line speed and using turnover possession to attack rather than kick for position, keeping the ball alive and playing at sustained pace. When they made mistakes in defence and attack, they quickly made up for them. Wales under Gatland have been a team that relish contact but here they often made an extra pass to widen the point of attack. The variety in their game contrasted with the largely one-dimensional approach of Scotland.
“I know we were in a good place,” Gatland said. “I went back to New Zealand over Christmas and spoke to Grant Fox [an All Blacks selector]. He said the hardest game they had on tour last autumn was against Wales and it was the best they played. I came away feeling that we were not as far away as people thought we were.”
It was Scotland’s 40th defeat in 46 away matches in the Six Nations, but they are at home in the next two rounds, starting with France. Townsend’s task is to stop confidence evaporating as quickly as it has in the past: his players struggled to adapt and stuck with their gameplan even when Wales had slowed down their possession at the breakdown or messed it up at the lineout.
“We did not fix problems and we have to do better,” Townsend said. “We do not have a great away record and we have to find solutions when we visit Dublin and Rome. I thought we would go out in the second half and show who we were.”
Wales have not suddenly become title favourites and they will face in their next two matches, away against England and Ireland, the two teams who have won the Six Nations in the last four years and who have deeper foundations than Scotland. They have become, though, more difficult to read because their penchant for running and handling has not come at the expense of their power, and the national management being encouraged by the Welsh Rugby Union to work with the country’s four regions is having a two-way impact.
Gatland told the regional coaches in 2016 that he wanted athletic front-five forwards. In Rob Evans and Cory Hill he has two and they were part of a movement in the opening 10 minutes that nearly led to the try of many a tournament. Aaron Shingler was also involved and the flanker personifies Wales’s metamorphosis: he was on the fringes in the contact era but there will still be a place for him when Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau return from injury. Wales are making mischief again.