Gatland springs another surprise as Wales face the ultimate test

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The Independent Online

A Warren Gatland team announcement is rather like an FA Cup match nowadays: one arrives fully expecting a shock. The scale of yesterday's surprise was indeed no surprise. This man kills the hopes of sporting giants with all the passion of a Barnsley – armed with David and his slingshot up front.

In fairness to the Kiwi, he did at least express some sympathy for Stephen Jones, after revealing that he had dropped the Lions outside-half in favour of young James Hook for Saturday's Grand Slam shot against France. Actually, Jones should be grateful, as Gatland has thus far shown the emotion of Albert Pierrepoint when pulling his lever. Perhaps the old cynic at last understands just what that No 10 jersey means in Wales, especially on a Millennium Stadium afternoon such as this promises to be.

"Stephen is absolutely gutted; very, very disappointed," Gatland said. "It was an agonising decision, definitely one of the hardest I've had to make in my career. But you've got to make these calls. The downside of this job is that sometimes you've got to let players down. I really felt for Stephen."

So what made him do it then? Why jettison the playmaker who, by the reckoning of most experts, had performed with admirable control since displacing the Osprey wonderkid two Tests ago?

"Well, like every game, we've looked at 10 and figured who could do the best job for this game," Gatland said. "And I just feel with France that James gives us more attacking options. It's no consolation to Stephen, but on the bench he gives us that experience and maturity and is able to change a game if we need him to. Or even simply to close a game down." In other words, Jones is less of an impact player and more of a safety net.

If the 30-year-old does need anyone to console him, then he should look no further than Mike Phillips, his half-back partner in the Triple Crown triumph in Dublin four days ago. When Wales last won the Grand Slam, in 2005, Phillips was on the bench, deputising for Dwayne Peel. The scrum-half now confesses it was hardly the most enjoyable day of his life. "It seemed so far away," he said. Maybe that is why he approached yesterday's selection meeting with more trepidation than any after committing the cardinal sin of receiving a yellow card at Croke Park.

"Yeah, if the result had have been different it could have cost him his place," Gatland said. "I hope Mike learns from that. When he was sin-binned we did wonder whether to bring Dwayne on. But we decided to put Mike back on to make amends."

The 25-year-old did so with something to spare and so keeps Peel – long regarded as the finest No 9 on these islands – stewing in his tracksuit. Rather like a number of his squad, Gatland makes no secret of how highly he rates Phillips, which is almost as highly as Phillips rates Phillips.

"I said to Mike, 'Listen, you could potentially be the biggest, most physical, most imposing scrum-half in world rugby – that is what you're capable of.' Mike told me he already is the biggest, most physical, most imposing scrum-half in world rugby. And he also pointed out that he's the best looking as well. So there's no lack of confidence in Mike."

There never has been, as France almost discovered to their cost two years ago, when they came to Cardiff looking for the Championship. Phillips was by some margin man of the match as Les Bleus scraped home. "I've been telling all the lads about what a great day it was for me and I think they're getting sick of it," Phillips said. "Saying that, we're all really confident. Ireland hardly threatened us. France are the only Six Nations side capable of pressurising us."

Gatland stayed tight-lipped about how he intends to counter the unique threat posed by the visitors, although he did agree that Wales may, just may, not avoid kicking the ball into touch as steadfastly as they have in the Championship so far.

"That is an area we have already looked at," he said. "The French have pace and power and big packs as well. They're going to be a challenge, our biggest defensive challenge in this tournament. But we have been pleased with our guys in that regard. You know, the attitude of Shaun [Edwards, his assistant] to defence is that he expects you to run into the line unless you've got a broken leg. And if you have got a broken leg he expects you to hop into the line. The guys showed that sort of courage and determination on the weekend. It was testimony to all the hard work we've being doing."

Not all of that has been ecstatically undertaken, no matter what the players will claim. One already infamous session last week was taken by the Commonwealth Games wrestler Paul Stridgeon – a friend of Edwards; some of the squad were on the verge of collapse. "The players said it was the hardest thing they have ever done in their lives," said Gatland with a chuckle, before turning serious again. "We have a poor record against France at the Millennium Stadium [losing the last five matches]. Their experiment with selection looks over and they have picked a very experienced squad with huge talent and physicality. They believe can beat us by 20 points and win the Championship."

France – whose team will be named by Marc Lièvremont today – base some of that belief on their experience last November. "Playing at home threw us into too much emotion during the World Cup and I think we lost because we were petrified by the stakes," said the scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde yesterday. "I hope it will be the same for the Welsh. It's not so often that they play for a Grand Slam at home."

Elvis Vermeulen, the No 8, simply grunted: "There is nothing like an impossible mission." Not when Elvis is still in the building, there isn't.

Wales team v France

Saturday, Millennium Stadium, KO 5.0pm:

15 L Byrne (Ospreys)

14 M Jones (Scarlets)

13 T Shanklin (Blues)

12 G Henson (Ospreys)

11 S Williams (Ospreys)

10 J Hook (Ospreys)

9 M Phillips (Ospreys)

1 G Jenkins (Blues)

2 H Bennett (Ospreys)

3 A Jones (Ospreys)

4 I Gough (Ospreys)

5 A-W Jones (Ospreys)

6 J Thomas (Ospreys)

7 M Williams (Blues)

8 R Jones (Ospreys, capt)

Replacements: 16 D Jones (Ospreys) 17 M Rees (Scarlets) 18 I Evans (Ospreys) 19 G Delve (Gloucester) 20 D Peel (Scarlets) 21 S Jones (Scarlets) 22 S Parker (Ospreys)

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