Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, laid his cards on the table in his own indomitable fashion yesterday with the surprise early announcement of his team to face England for the Six Nations opener at the Millennium Stadium on Friday night.
That he unveiled his side 48 hours earlier than anticipated was trademark Gatland, effectively saying to his England counterpart, Stuart Lancaster, how straightforward his selection was from a fully fit squad, while Lancaster’s players continue to drop like flies.
In truth, Gatland’s team from 1 to 15 was as expected, the only minor question being whether George North would make way for Liam Williams, who superbly deputised for the concussed North in the victory over South Africa in November.
A previous threat to drop North because of a dip in his standards was never really going to materialise, though, not when the winger has been so influential for Wales and so good with Northampton since the turn of the year.
Yet Gatland has the propensity to use press conferences to make points to players and yesterday North was still in his sights. “We don’t feel he’s played well for Wales but he continues to score tries and he does that for his club, too,” he said of the 22-year-old winger, who has 19 tries in 45 appearances for Wales. “We’re looking for the X Factor from him on Friday night.
“We’re looking for George to get a lot of touches and, if his work rate is high, he will create something. We’re giving him that opportunity – he knows what the expectations are on Friday.”
The only other change from Wales’ last game – that historic 12-6 win over the Springboks, which finally ended their hoodoo against the southern hemisphere big three – is the return at hooker of Richard Hibbard.
While Lancaster’s England side on Friday is likely to be a patchwork outfit, Gatland had the luxury of picking from a full-strength squad, which has not always been the case during his tenure.
“We told the players this morning and it wasn’t the hardest team to pick,” said Gatland, expanding on his reasons for announcing the line-up two days early. “We decided to name the team early to give the players the best possible chance of preparation. And in Wales, once you tell the players it’s not long before it’s in the media. Once we’d told them it was enough to go with it.”
There had been question marks about centre Jonathan Davies’ availability after he missed Clermont Auvergne’s last match as a result of a tight hamstring but Wales’ medical team have declared him fit.
The game will be Sam Warburton’s 50th in a Wales jersey and he features in a now customary back row with Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau, meaning once again Justin Tipuric starts the match on the bench.
Yesterday, Gatland was full of praise for his captain. “Sam has continued to develop as a genuine No 7,” he said. “As a captain, he will only get better. I wouldn’t put him in the same category but he reminds me of Richie McCaw as a captain and a player.
“He can play at seven and we can move him to six and play Tipuric. He’s a modern professional and a great leader – the kind of player who suits that role. He does a great job for us.”
Gatland, meanwhile, admitted that Scarlets centre Scott Williams was arguably the unluckiest player to miss out on the match-day 23, as Wales aim to emulate their 30-3 demolition of England when the two teams last met at the Millennium Stadium in 2013.Reuse content