Six Nations 2015: Talking points as Gatland fires early warning shot
Wales head coach names team early, Liam Williams is back on the bench and England out-half George Ford is in for a treat
Over to you, Stu
Much of the talk surrounding this Friday night spectacle has been England’s growing injury list. Wales, however, have been confident that they would have a fully fit squad and their training focus appears to be more on fitness than contact sessions. No friendly fire down the Vale, is it? Not a bad idea when you are recalling men with the size and power of George North and Richard Hibbard, who have a point or two to prove. Wales head coach Warren Gatland pulled a surprise by showing his hand 48 hours earlier than scheduled, supposedly to aid with their preparation, but there’s a sense of firing a firm message 135 miles down the M4 to the England camp in Surrey: “Here’s our lot. Bring it!” England head coach Stuart Lancaster is expected to announce his team on Wednesday morning with whatever remains of a squad he can scrape off the training pitches at the Pennyhill Park complex. He’ll probably need all that time to get a number of players ready to go. In fairness, it won’t be anything England weren’t expecting as the Wales starting XV is more or less the same group of players Wales have been deploying for years now, there are only four changes – Samson Lee for Adam Jones, Jake Ball for Ian Evans, Dan Lydiate for Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb for Mike Phillips – from the team that destroyed the Red Rose to steal the Six Nations title with a 30-3 win in 2013, but there’s definitely a confidence oozing from the Wales camp. It is difficult not to be impressed that a coach of Gatland’s experience is brazenly throwing down the gauntlet.
May be the Ford be with you
Limited to just two brief appearances off the bench in the tournament, some may feel sorry for Bath’s George Ford when he takes to the field at the Millennium Stadium. Even if England opt to have the roof open, it’s still going to be a banging night in Cardiff city centre and the 21-year-old has just 10 minutes of Six Nations rugby behind him. He may have got some big game experience in the European Champions Cup and last November’s QBE Internationals, but Wales vs England is a different beast – just ask the relatively green mob that turned up two years ago and were promptly dispatched back over the Severn after a good hiding. Weighing in at a mighty 86kg according to the book, Ford is going to have a cracking time with Wales’ big backs running down his throat all night. His defensive play will certainly be tested. By comparison, Ford sizes up with Wales’ scrum-halves, with the exception of Mike Phillips and his 6’2″ 102kg physique, while last year Jamie Roberts was down as 6’4″ 110kg and wing George North at 6’4″ 109kg, and that’s probably being generous. If the atmosphere doesn’t get him, the exertions of dealing with super-charged Welsh tanks probably will and not just from Roberts running on the crashball either. Throw in a bit of Richard Hibbard, Samson Lee, Jake Ball and Taulupe Faletau all taking aim and that’s quite the mismatch, but it will certainly be the 10-12 channel with Luther Burrell and an internationally green Jonathan Joseph at 13 that Gatland targets, and he’ll do it all night – there may be some unfamiliar faces popping up at first receiver to have a go.
Williams waiting in the wing
A player of Liam Williams’ undoubted ability would walk into most sides, but the Scarlets full-back/wing continues to find himself in form and on the bench. If only George North wasn’t 22, a beast of a man and fairly lethal within 22 metres of the tryline, or Leigh Halfpenny wasn’t a monster goal-kicker who can win games from anywhere, or Alex Cuthbert wasn’t a player who can go missing for half a game and still turn up a superb strike rate. There’s still a very good argument that Williams, as he was last season, is playing better than Cardiff Blues wing Cuthbert. His international try-scoring record may be a bit tasty, but Cuthbert still goes missing far too often, only to rock up to the party to finish moves off, or he goes through spells of sheer brilliance to obscurity, as many Blues fans will confirm. While Halfpenny has a clear edge in his defensive work and kicking out of hand and off the tee is world class, he’s not the best counter-attacking threat in Europe. Over the last 18 months there has been a growing desire to see Williams be given a chance at full-back with Halfpenny returned to the right wing, where he started his international career. They could even interchange, as needed. The debate should never be about choosing between Williams and Halfpenny. It needs to be how you accommodate both, and George North, in the back three. While Cuthbert mulls over possible contracts in England and France after turning down a dual contract, he could find himself out of the Wales team sooner than being slapped with Gatland’s Law. His combined size, strength and pace, and ultimately his strike rate, that is keeping him in the team. Reputation and perceived ability are wonderful to have, but if he doesn’t get off his wing and into the game more, there is a real danger he may not finish the campaign in the team, as he can’t cover multiple positions off the bench. Form over favourites should always be the way, but international coaches are notoriously stubborn. Williams is the obvious choice to take his jersey and offers more versatility, which is en vogue in a Rugby World Cup year – just ask former Wales head coach Steve Hansen what he’s playing with in the New Zeland backline.