It does not always follow that Wales are at their most dangerous when Warren Gatland is at his most mischievous: four years ago, after the national coach had played mind games in a transparent effort to wind up the combustible England front-rower Dylan Hartley ahead of a floodlit Six Nations match in Cardiff, the visitors won with something to spare – not least because Hartley silenced the Millennium Stadium crowd with a hooking masterclass.
Yet from the red-rose perspective, there was something disturbingly confident – almost serene – about Gatland’s playfulness. In naming a 34-strong squad for the forthcoming tournament, which begins with another after-dark visit from the “bloody English” a fortnight on Friday, the exiled New Zealander argued that he was far more certain of the pre-World Cup road ahead than his opposite number, Stuart Lancaster, before preparing the ground for a game of “chicken” by talking about the stadium roof.
Gatland is keen on an indoor match, partly because Wales have grown used to playing their home games in controlled conditions and partly because the last time England crossed the River Severn on Six Nations business, they failed to cope with the extraordinary atmosphere generated under the concrete and lost by a record margin. But it is Lancaster who will make the call: under tournament rules, the contest must be held in the open air unless both coaches agree otherwise.
“The atmosphere was pretty electric last time, so I’ll be interested to see if England have the roof open,” Gatland remarked, before adding, just a little sardonically: “They may try to dampen things down, but I hope they’re prepared to accept the challenge and have it closed.” When Lancaster names his own squad at Twickenham, he will no doubt be pressed hard for his thoughts on the matter. If he has any sense, he will take the outdoor option.
While all this did not quite add up to another of “Gatland’s grenades”, as the former All Black forward’s more incendiary pre-match pronouncements have come to be labelled, it certainly amounted to a firework through the red-rose letter box. With the two nations sharing a World Cup pool in September – very much a “pool of death”, given the additional presence of Australia – there are significant victories to be won in the psychological warfare department, and with the Wales squad a picture of stability, it was the perfect opportunity to fire the first shot.
“We are lucky in that we know where our selection is, while England are still debating which way they’re going, particularly at outside-half and midfield – positions that will determine the type of game they’ll play at the World Cup,” said the coach. “They’re not 100 per cent sure because they have such strength in depth. It’s a matter of whether they play nine or 10-man rugby, or whether they go for something more expansive.”
For his part, Gatland was sufficiently sure of his ground to omit some very good players indeed: the gifted, multifaceted, playmaking back James Hook; the folk hero Lions Test prop Adam Jones; the much talked about young outside-half Owen Williams. Both Hook and Williams have lost out to one of Gatland’s fellow New Zealanders, recently arrived in Wales: the Super 15 stand-off Gareth Anscombe, who qualifies through his mother’s roots in Cardiff. Jones, meanwhile, finds himself off the Six Nations podium in fourth spot, behind Aaron Jarvis of Ospreys, Scott Andrews of Cardiff Blues and the new first-choice No 3, Samson Lee of Scarlets.
Anscombe, who won an Under-20s world title with the Junior All Blacks in 2011 but was then beaten to full Test honours by his contemporary Beauden Barrett, is highly likely to earn a first cap over the course of the Six Nations, although Gatland will not tinker unnecessarily with the side that beat the Springboks during the autumn international series in Cardiff. The one obvious change will be on the wing: George North, who missed the South Africa date with concussion, seems sure to return wide on the left, with either Liam Williams or Alex Cuthbert starting on the right.
With Anscombe safely on board after lengthy discussions stretching back months, there was a thought that Williams, who plays his rugby in England with Leicester, might be picked ahead of the more experienced Rhys Priestland, who will leave the Llanelli-based Scarlets for Bath at the end of the season. But Gatland is sticking with what he knows, partly for political reasons.
“I am disappointed that Rhys is being lost to Wales,” he said, “but he has made a personal decision and I have to respect that. I can also understand Owen deciding to stay with Leicester rather than come back to the Scarlets, who tried very hard to persuade him. Leicester made a commitment to him and he has shown loyalty to them, which is always good to see. But it didn’t help him, not starting for the Tigers against Scarlets in the European game last Friday night. If he had done so and played well, there would have been a much bigger discussion about him. When he didn’t start, it killed the debate.”
This was the coach’s way of restating the new orthodoxy in Wales: namely, that international contenders who play for one of the four professional teams rather than chase the big money in England or France will have a far greater chance of being selected at Test level.
Lancaster, meanwhile, is planning to name 60 players today: a 34-strong Six Nations training squad, along with a 26-man party for the second-tier England Saxons game with the Irish Wolfhounds in Cork on Friday week. The Leicester lock Geoff Parling is expected to return to the elite group after missing the November series at Twickenham through concussion, while his in-form clubmate Graham Kitchener is also in the mix for a place in the absence of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, who performed so brilliantly in last year’s tournament.
Backs L Halfpenny (Toulon), L Williams (Scarlets), G North (Northampton), A Cuthbert (Cardiff), H Amos, T Morgan (both Newport), S Williams (Scarlets), J Davies (Clermont), J Roberts (Racing), C Allen, G Anscombe (both Cardiff), R Priestland (Scarlets), D Biggar (Ospreys), G Davies (Scarlets), R Webb (Ospreys), M Phillips (Racing).
Forwards G Jenkins (Cardiff), P James (Bath), R Evans, S Lee (both Scarlets), S Baldwin, A Jarvis (both Ospreys), S Andrews (Cardiff), R Hibbard (Gloucester), K Dacey (Cardiff), A W Jones, J Tipuric (both Ospreys), J Ball (Scarlets), B Davies (Wasps), L Charteris (Racing), D Lydiate, J King (both Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff, capt), T Faletau (Newport)Reuse content