Six Nations 2014: Wales react impressively to getting a rare second chance
It was Warren Gatland's predecessor as a New Zealander head coach of Wales, Graham Henry, who became nicknamed the "Great Redeemer", thanks mainly to some cute marketing at a time in the late 1990s when a series of dire results was followed by a long winning run. The difference from Henry in Gatland's style of management was that on Friday night, after Wales's revitalising win over France in Cardiff, the incumbent boss preferred to vest the description in his players, not himself.
"I am a great believer in sometimes giving players a chance to redeem themselves," Gatland said, acknowledging in the word "sometimes" the dropping of Mike Phillips after the woeful loss in Ireland a fortnight previously. Apart from the scrum-half – who was obliged to observe a promising display of snappy passing by his replacement, Rhys Webb – the majority of the team from Dublin hit the bull's-eye with their shot at redemption.
They beat the French 27-6 to record their biggest winning margin in the fixture since 1950 and retain a chance of taking the Six Nations' Championship, going into the tasty date with England at Twickenham on Sunday week.
Gatland had pep-talked his players, one to one, in the build-up and addressed them collectively shortly before arriving at the Millennium Stadium, urging the Six Nations champions of the past two years to find motivation in "the jersey we put on, or in family or friends, or the past". Naturally a meeting with France is mighty motivation in itself, but the reaction of key players gave meaning to the rhetoric. George North, who scored his 16th try in 38 Tests for Wales, and Dan Lydiate, the chop-tackling colossus who for the first time in this Six Nations got on the right side of the referee, name-checked a girlfriend cycling in Colombia and a collection of sheep in Llandrindod Wells among their dearest influences.
"I went back to the family farm in midweek," said Lydiate, the blindside flanker, referring to a 500-acre concern in mid-Wales, "and it was awesome, to help the parents out and feed a few sheep. I do love it up there. It's nice to get a break away to spend some quality time with my family… and the sheep."
Before any non-Welshmen guffaw too loudly, Lydiate elaborated: "From the final whistle in Dublin we were hurting so badly, [felt] we'd let a lot of people down – the public and ourselves. We're just thankful that 'Gats' gave us another chance to prove ourselves. But it is just one game and we have to build on this now going into a big match-up in Twickenham.
"Warren did speak to me individually, and rightly so, and it's not a nice thing to hear off your coach. But Gats has always been honest with his players, and I'd rather be told than just talked about and not be told. For the last two games [a win against Italy preceded the Ireland loss] I've been penalised off the park. Against France, I did exactly the same thing, but I didn't get penalised. We are just happy as a squad to get ourselves back in the [title] race. The Championship is a massive motivation."
North said he would be keeping in touch with his squeeze, Becky James, who is competing for Great Britain in the World Cycling Championships in Cali this week, while his contract with Northampton allows him a fallow week before facing England – unlike Lydiate, Jamie Roberts and Phillips, who may have to play for their French club, Racing Métro, against Castres on Saturday.
"What did Warren say to me?" North said after his successful start in the centres, though his favoured position remains the wing. "'Don't mess up' was the first one. No, seriously, it was learning the game at 13 and bringing my attributes to the jersey." He may stay there against England and a clubmate, Luther Burrell, if Jon Davies fails to recover fitness. "People talk about the players who have gone before," said North. "I want to put my own stamp on the jersey. Sometimes I forget that I'm still only 21. A few boys call me 'The man-child' and I think that myself, sometimes. For me, there's nothing better than playing for my country, and hopefully the tries will keep on coming.
"But the Welsh way has always been that we front up every week. It shouldn't be hard, regardless of the result. We needed a kick up the backside to get us back on track."
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