Six Nations 2014: Wales coach Warren Gatland drops ‘confrontational’ Mike Phillips to bench for France match
The British and Irish Lion will have to settle for a place on the bench
Mike Phillips is so familiar with the technique of skating on wafer-thin ice, he might easily have struck gold in Sochi. Instead, he has been struck dumb.
The first-choice Lions scrum-half in five of the last six British Isles Tests was dropped by Wales on Wednesday, and while the 31-year-old from Carmarthenshire may yet play a part in Friday night’s Six Nations meeting with France at the Millennium Stadium, his hold on the fabled No 9 shirt is weaker now than at any point since 2007.
Warren Gatland, the Red Dragons head coach and one of Phillips’ principal supporters, was characteristically blunt in explaining his thinking. “We weren’t happy with Mike’s performance against Ireland,” he said, referring to the heavy defeat in Dublin 11 days ago.
“He was probably a little confrontational one-on-one with Conor Murray [the increasingly impressive half-back from Munster] and was yellow-carded towards the end of the game. By putting him on the bench and giving Rhys Webb a chance, we’ve given him an opportunity to reflect. At the moment, we feel Rhys will give us a different dimension.”
If Webb, the 25-year-old Ospreys player, is thought to offer more, he is equally likely to offer less: less trouble, less strife, less controversy. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine him fighting with the entire French pack as Wales attempt to revive hopes of an unprecedented third successive title, or indulging in after-match arguments with pop stars via social media.
Given the parlous situation in Welsh rugby at regional level and the drop in performance levels by the national team, it is easy to understand why Gatland prefers the new man’s approach just at the moment. Warren Gatland, the Red Dragons head coach, was characteristically blunt in explaining his thinking: 'We weren’t happy with Mike’s performance against Ireland'
Phillips is the most decorated scrum-half in Welsh rugby history: his 82-cap haul trumps that of any of his forerunners – Dwayne Peel, Robert Jones, Terry Holmes, the great Gareth Edwards, the lot. He has also proved one of the most problematical.
Only this season, his association with the struggling French club Bayonne ended in ruins when he was accused of turning up drunk at a video analysis session and duly sacked. Alain Afflelou, the chairman of the Basque side, labelled him “a serial offender”.
Now playing in Paris with Racing Métro, alongside his countrymen and fellow Test Lions Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate, he was an automatic choice for the Wales-Italy game in the opening round of Six Nations fixtures. The reigning champions won, but were unusually flat.
Seven days later, they came badly unstuck in Dublin, suffering their worst Six Nations defeat since 2006. Phillips was not alone in under-performing, but his lack of discipline in the face of humiliation made him an easy target for his many critics.
As expected, George North will move from left wing to outside centre in the absence of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams, the two Scarlets midfielders. Up front, Gatland has recalled the Perpignan lock Luke Charteris, one of the top-of-the-bill acts at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand but hampered by injury ever since. Charteris replaces Andrew Coombs of Newport Gwent Dragons in the boilerhouse of the scrum.
Gatland, who is sticking by his captain Sam Warburton in the open-side role despite deafening calls to run the Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric in the breakaway position, may have found yesterday’s selection significantly more difficult than usual, but it was not all sweetness and light in France, either.
Philippe Saint-André, head coach of Les Bleus, made just a single injury-enforced change to the side that put 30 points past Italy last time out – the Racing Métro forward Wenceslas Lauret, aka “the good king”, will fill the hole left by the concussed Bernard Le Roux – but that was the easy part. The former captain’s relationship with the country’s leading clubs was a very different matter.
Saint-André had asked that a dozen members of his elite squad be rested when the domestic Top 14 competition resumed last weekend. The response? Only six spent quality time on the chaise longue.
The others were all pressed into action for the clubs, including the Clermont Auvergne hooker Benjamin Kayser, who promptly suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for the rest of the Six Nations.
“You can never prepare a team effectively in a time of controversy and political division,” Saint-André said yesterday. “The 15 starters for England this weekend were rested last weekend. In Ireland, it was the same for 98 per cent of their players. I had six players rested out of 30.
“It is the institutions and the clubs who make policy, not me. I just try to protect the players.”
Brice Mach, the Castres hooker, has been called onto the bench for the stricken Kayser. Other changes among the replacements see the Clermont prop Vincent Debaty filling in for the suspended Rabah Slimani and Rémi Talès, also of Castres, rejoining the party at outside-half ahead of François Trinh-Duc.
Wales team to play France at the Millennium Stadium:
L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), G North (Northampton), J Roberts (Racing Metro), L Williams (Scarlets); R Priestland (Scarlets), R Webb (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), R Hibbard (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Perpignan), A-W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Racing Metro), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).
Replacements: K Owens (Scarlets), P James (Bath), R Jones (Scarlets), J Ball (Scarlets), J Tipuric (Ospreys), M Phillips (Racing Metro), D Biggar (Ospreys), J Hook (Perpignan).
France team to play Wales on Friday:
B Dulin (Castres); Y Huget (Toulouse), M Bastareaud (Toulon), W Fofana (Clermont Auvergne), H Bonneval (Stade Francais); J Plisson (Stade Francais), J-M Doussain (Toulouse); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), D Szarzewski (Racing Metro), N Mas (Montpellier), P Pape (Stade Francais, captain), Y Maestri (Toulouse), Y Nyanga (Toulouse), W Lauret (Racing Metro), L Picamoles (Toulouse).
Replacements: B Mach (Castres), Y Forestier (Castres), V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), S Vahaamahina (Perpignan), D Chouly (Clermont Auvergne), M Machenaud (Racing Metro), R Tales (Castres), G Fickou (Toulouse).
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