Warren Gatland wants Wales to hit ground running
Visiting coach expecting more of the same from Ireland at Aviva Stadium
Wales coach Warren Gatland expects a physical game against Ireland on Sunday. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.
Never shy about declaring his hand, either four days out from the match or two days ahead of his counterpart Joe Schmidt, or declaring anything else for that matter, Warren Gatland was in unusually diplomatic eve-of-match mood on Wednesday.
While the Welsh coach was bullish about his squad’s relative well-being and injury profile, starting that “we are in a good place”, he was suitably wary of a casualty list which could make Ireland a wounded beast. “The greatest strength with the Irish is when they are written off and people disrespect their ability to play. We have got to be conscious of that and make sure we don’t do that. They have won the championship in the last two years and we respect them tremendously as a team. They are going to be particularly tough at home. For both teams, this opening game of the tournament is really important.”
To that end, Gatland admitted to a fear factor. “There is always trepidation about the first game of the Six Nations. If you lose that, then you start looking long term, so there’s a lot of fear in all of us. There’s a lot of pressure in professional sport to perform and get results and we want to start this tournament well.
Gatland is both a loyal and consistent selector as well as being willing to promote young players. The biggest surprise in his selection was that of 23-year-old Scarlets loosehead Rob Evans, who will earn his fourth cap in his third match against Ireland, having made his debut halfway through last season’s corresponding match in Cardiff.
Asked if choosing Evans ahead of Gethin Jenkins signalled a changing of the guard, Gatland said “possibly”, and mindful of the age profile of Jenkins and Paul James, he added: “He’s a young player of the future. We are giving Rob an opportunity looking forward to 2019.”
Even recalling the 29-year-old Cardiff winger Tom James for his 10th cap, five and a half years after his ninth, was a form pick, and Gatland reckoned the 29-year-old winger’s move to Exeter was beneficial.
With both Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate short of game time, Gatland decided against starting both, with Lydiate on the bench and Warburton shifting to blindside to accommodate Justin Tipuric in an all-Lions backrow. Similarly, Liam Williams needed more game time, hence the preference for Gareth Anscombe at fullback. “We have gone for a little bit more height in that back three because we expect Ireland to put a lot of balls in the air. We have got to be able to handle that threat.
“I suppose the template for them is the way they played against us two years ago when we went to the Aviva Stadium and they played us off the park in terms of driving well at lineout time,” said Gatland in reference to Ireland’s 26-3 win in 2014. “We were well beaten that day. They dominated territory and possession and we didn’t handle their kicking game. We are expecting the same again from them a little bit because it has been very successful, so we’ve got to make sure we handle that as a team. It’s going to be a physical game. They strangled us out of the match two years ago and played well and we have to rise to that challenge.”