Wales' skill levels as good as the All Blacks, claims Gatland

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The Independent Online

Coaches who find it necessary to jettison six members of their starting XV halfway through the Six Nations do not normally declare their squad as being "as good as the All Blacks". But then, Wales is fast discovering that Warren Gatland is no normal coach.

It is difficult to think of any other sporting gaffer – OK, Rafael Benitez apart – who would take the axe to a side who have just won their first two matches in a tournament, still less one who would select an entirely new front row and replace both half-backs.

While the dropping of the young Ospreys Mike Phillips and James Hook for the experienced Scarlets Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones had been well signposted as soon as Gatland revealed he would name his 22 for the next game against Italy a full week early, the alterations at props and hooker were definitely not anticipated.

Italy may have a paucity in creative backs, but they proved against England on Sunday that in destructive forwards they are blessed. Surely bringing in Gethin Jenkins and Rhys Thomas for Adam Jones and Duncan Jones, and Matthew Rees for Huw Bennett in between, is the "Mambo Italiano" of all gambles? Not so, said Gatland, because of his squad's strength of depth. The Kiwi admitted that in his brief time in Wales, he has been more than a little surprised at how rich his reserves run, before launching into a full-blown eulogy of his boys in red.

"I've been incredibly impressed at the skill levels of these players – they're as good as anything I've seen in the Southern Hemisphere," he said. "They are better than the Irish players I worked with, better than the English players at Wasps I worked with and as good as the best players in New Zealand. Some of the things they do in training I've just gone 'wow'. Physically, though, we've still got a lot of work to do before we can compete against the best. But we'll get there."

Gatland has told his squad the same, although it is fair to say they were not as shocked by his comparisons as others who witnessed them lamely ducking out in the pool stages of the World Cup. "We always knew we were talented," said the captain Ryan Jones. "It did boost our confidence to hear it off Warren, though."

What might be not so good for the ego is to be benched after two displays in which you just happened to have kicked nine goals from nine attempts, scored a try at a critical time, had a decisive hand in two of your country's other four tries and collected the man-of-the-match honours in the first triumph in Twickenham for two decades. Gatland described Master Hook as being "disappointed" when told that Jones would be starting Saturday week's international, but in truth he had every right to be bewildered. At least Gatland was able to confirm to Hook, that as of now, the boys who swiped aside Scotland on Saturday were still his No 1 choices.

"This is more about given players in the squad an opportunity," he said. "The players who have started the first two games are probably still in the box seat, as they've done very well."

If this gives the impression that Gatland is taking the Italian threat lightly he insists it should not. "I don't think when you see the likes of Gethin, Dwayne, Stephen and Mark [Jones] coming in you can say we're experimenting," he said.

The last-named returns on the wing at the expense of Jamie Roberts, who was widely thought to have had a good debut four days ago. Good. But plainly not good enough.

Wales team to play Italy (Sat 23 February, Cardiff, KO 3pm)

L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson, S Williams (both Ospreys); S Jones, D Peel (both Llanelli Scarlets); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), R Thomas (Newport Gwent Dragons), I Gough, I Evans, J Thomas (all Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt).

Replacements: H Bennett, Duncan Jones (Ospreys), Deiniol Jones (Cardiff Blues), G Delve (Gloucester), M Phillips, J Hook, S Parker (all Ospreys).

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