A simple poster at London Irish’s Hazelwood training ground perhaps best summed up the differing moods in the Engand and Wales camps ahead the Pool A clash at Twickenham.
It boasted “An Evening with Warren Gatland”, the Wales coach waxing lyrical to Exiles supporters under the questioning of former England lock Nick Kennedy just 48 hours before travelling six miles down the road for tomorrow’s game.
It was at the same venue earlier in the day that he somehow turned the image of himself and Wales being on the back foot, supposedly in the midst of an irreparable injury crisis four days previously, to very much being on to the front foot.
One suspects his opposite number Stuart Lancaster’s evening was distinctly different, spent poring over his decision to rejig his midfield in the biggest move of his England tenure by naming a new 10-12-13 axis of Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt.
Gatland made no secret of the fact the selection had taken him by surprise and was even less secretive in his obvious glee at the selection news having been leaked 48 hours previously, giving Wales further time to adapt their game plan accordingly.
“We were expecting they would go with the same 10, 12, 13 so that threw us for a few days,” he said. “The team wasn’t announced until today so obviously there’s some leaks there. We weren’t expecting that and had been preparing for other players so we’ve changed our direction a little bit.”
England are, in effect, meeting fire with fire by throwing physicality at Wales’ big back line, partly forced by a chest injury to Jonathan Joseph, whose absence unquestionably helps Wales’ ambitions.
“What’s caused us problems with England has been footwork,” said Gatland. “Joseph has caused us a lot of problems at centre. I’m not sure Burgess and Barritt have the same footwork – they’re more direct as players and bring the physical element required at this level.”
Burgess’s selection has been the most talked about, with just 11 months of rugby union under his belt and the majority of his games having been played at flanker for his club Bath rather than at centre.
But Gatland argued it was no great weakness having Burgess in the team, saying: “He’s got inexperience at rugby but not at big occasions. He’s a big man at 6ft 5in. We’re not rubbing our hands together thinking there’s a weakness there. When you underestimate a player it comes back to bite you. You don’t single out anyone personally so we won’t single out Sam Burgess. We’ll go out to smash him like everyone else.”
Wales’ latest injury problems proved not to be as bad as first thought, with only Paul James (calf) and Corey Allen (out of the tournament with a hamstring injury) unavailable.
One of the big calls by Gatland was naming the Exeter Chiefs prop Tomas Francis at tight head rather than Samson Lee, who moves to the bench in a precautionary move after he sustained a sore heel in the wake of his first game since rupturing his Achilles tendon during the Six Nations.
In addition, Hallam Amos, on his 21st birthday, won the battle for the second wing spot ahead of Alex Cuthbert, while Bradley Davies is fancied over Luke Charteris at lock. Wales keep their established back row, with Justin Tipuric on the bench despite Gatland claiming he had been man of the match in two of Wales’ three World Cup warm-up games.
There is no room at all in the match-day squad for scrum-half Mike Phillips, with Gareth Davies starting the game at No 9 and Lloyd Williams on the bench.
Gatland and Wales have been accused of being too one-dimensional in the past with the so-called “Warrenball”, the bulldozing approach of giving the ball to the big men to take across the gain line.
But the Kiwi coach laughed at such talk: “I saw Sir Clive Woodward asking ‘what is [Warrenball]?’ but can you tell me what it is? There’s a few trophies won by playing it. It’s probably a compliment. I think people are jealous that they’ve not had success themselves.
“We have such a small playing nation that when big players come along they get picked, as you need to compete against the big boys. But the idea we’re playing the same way is a naive way to look at it. A lot of teams are direct.”
Wales have won just once on their last four visits to Twickenham, and Gatland admitted his team had “got dragged into a game they didn’t want to do” in Cardiff in last year’s Six Nations. But he hit back at suggestions his record was poor on England’s turf. “I’ve won three Premiership titles there and a Heineken Cup final! Our record since I’ve been involved with Wales is five-all, which is not bad for a nation the size of Wales against the most powerful and richest team in the world.
“I’m comfortable with that record and it’s about winning on that biggest stage – 2013 mattered for Wales and it matters on Saturday. But for us as a nation this is the biggest game we’ve had for a long time against the old enemy.”
How they will fare remains to be seen but the mood in the Wales camp was one of relaxed focus. Gatland insisted: “I don’t want to play any mind games.” But for 15 minutes at London Irish’s training base, on and off camera, he had done just that.Reuse content