Six Nations Preview: Gatland Improves Welsh In Challenging Campaign
Six Nations Preview: Gatland Improves Welsh In Challenging Campaign
Welsh Six Nations Preview - Warren Gatland returns to a squad influx without his former assistants in a tournament stacked with teams in red hot form.
Coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Ken Owens
Home Stadium: Millennium Stadium Cardiff
Out with the new and in with the old, this is the approach an embattled Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) have taken in 2023.
When your old is arguably your greatest-ever coach in Warren Gatland you can fully understand the reasoning behind the WRU’s haste at bringing back their man.
The question on every Welsh fan’s lips is can Gatland raise the Titanic amidst the self-inflicted storm Welsh Rugby finds itself in?
2022 Tale Of The Tape
Not since 2007 has Welsh Rugby been at such a low ebb, chaos on the field was matched only by the disaster unfolding off the pitch.
As Wayne Pivac’s side recorded historic losses at home to both Italy and Georgia whilst also being roundly thumped by other tier-one nations. The governing body of Welsh Rugby was battling court cases and cases of sexual harassment.
Whilst the off-field issues persisted the on-field product was dire, to say the least. Losing four of five in the Six Nations just a season removed from winning albeit a strange Six Nations title. Welsh Rugby was saved from the wooden spoon only by Italy (whom they would lose to in the final round).
As Autumn approached there was a sense of inevitability that the Pivac area could be coming to a crash landing at any moment.
One win from four with that historic loss to Georgia and an all-mighty shellacking at the hands of the All Blacks spelt the end for Pivac.
Style Of Play
Expect a major shake-up in the Welsh game plan as Gatland returns from his three-year absence.
Under Pivac the Welsh attempted to play a wide/wide game plan looking to go around opposition defences rather than through them.
By and large, this approach did not seem to suit them, whether it was from a psyche standpoint or a skill level it just didn’t click consistently enough to yield sustained success.
There will be no fear of a similar approach under Gatland who is renowned for his Warren Ball approach which is the direct opposite of Pivac’s approach.
Under Gatland Wales was a direct, physically dominant and simply belligerent team. Unwilling to yield an inch, Wales would swarm the opposition with chop tackles in defence before running straight at them in attack.
Key to this approach was the physical and at times giant backline of players such as Jamie Roberts, George North, Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert.
Despite their differences in philosophy, Gatland was complimentary of the Welsh under Pivac.
Speaking at the Guinness Six Nations launch Gatland said, “I think that in the last three years since I left there has been some excellent performances by this Welsh team. They won the Six Nations in 2021, they beat South Africa for the first time away from home.”
Gatland went on to explain how his coaching ticket plan was to get back on track.
“I think what they’ll be disappointed with is they’ve probably been a bit inconsistent in terms of performances and results. That is the challenge for us in terms of making sure we work hard and that we are competitive across all games that we play.”
“The key to that is keeping things simple, you’ve just got to prioritise as you’ve only got a short amount of preparation over the next couple of weeks.”
“So, it’s about making sure we, first of all, focus on the basics, the set piece and getting that right. We have some new coaches coming in, so we need to make sure the language is consistent.”
“We’ve got to have clarity within the squad of knowing our roles and then make sure we work hard over the next couple of weeks.”
“The message to other coaches is to make sure we don’t give too much information in such a short period and that we don’t over coach.”
“I think that’s always one of the most important things for me in terms of creating a positive culture within the squad and what that means.”
“I have always been a great believer in walking the walk and not just talking the talk.”
Assessing this Welsh team’s characteristics is a difficult proposition given the major overhaul at the top.
Assuming they will play in a style similar to previous Gatland squads, this Welsh side will likely be a hard-hitting direct squad.
With this in mind, the depth of quality in their backrow looks to be their greatest strength. Justin Tipuric (33) and Taulupe (32) Faletau are both closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Even still they are both world-class operators capable of wrecking a game with their technical carrying and physicality around the breakdown.
Joining the duo in the opening game against Ireland is 23-year-old Jac Morgan who has been tipped for great things in the Red jersey. In fact, legendary former captain Sam Warburton has suggested that Morgan is a captain in waiting. High praise indeed.
Coming off the bench is another 23-year-old in Leicester Tiger Tommy Reffell who is simply a menace at ruck time. Picking up a Player Of The Match award in his second test in Wales’s historic victory over the Springboks in South Africa, Reffell proved he is more than ready for the test arena.
In stark contrast to the overflowing stocks in the backrow department, centre is an area of real concern for Gatland.
So much of Gatland’s philosophy revolved around having a physically imposing inside centre with a powerful strike running outside centre.
First up will be a combination of 20-year-old Joe Hawkins who will combine with veteran George North.
Hawkins has been a real find for the Ospreys and played well in his debut against the Wallabies during the Autumn Nations Series. Yet playing against a number of settled and experienced centre combinations will test just where he is in his development.
As for North, questions remain as to whether he is truly suited to the centres or whether he should revert back to the wing. Having now played a number of tests in the midfield, North does not lack for experience in the position. Yet the majority of his 109 caps came on the wing and it could be argued that the majority of his best days were out wide.
Most Valuable Player
This is absolutely a projection of where he will be at the end of the tournament, Jac Morgan looks to be the real deal and should anchor the Welsh backrow for the next decade.
His reign as a world-class flanker starts this weekend against Ireland where he will likely face off with World Player Of The Year Josh van der Flier, former British and Irish Lions captain Peter O’Mahony and arguably the best Number Eight in the World Caelen Doris.
Come through this test and the world will sit up and take notice. As mentioned above for the Gatland game plan to be effective the backrow needs to be on their game at both the tackle point and breakdown. This will be crucial in round one against an Irish side that thrives on quick ball.
Last season was an aberration, Pivac’s departure and Gatland’s return will give the Welsh a major boost.
Wales has traditionally been a big tournament performer under Gatland, and this season should be no different. If they manage to defeat Ireland in round one, then the Grand Slam will be on.
Lose in round one and a mid-table finish will be on the cards. Having both Ireland and England at home is a major advantage for the Welsh yet a trip to Paris in the final round is about as tough as it gets.
Whilst the furore around Gatland’s return is understandable, actually putting performances on the pitch is what counts. The Welsh will improve across the tournament but with a squad filled with past their best veterans and inexperienced up and comers they will struggle. For the first time quite a while the wooden spoon will be heading to Wales as they finish 6th.
Forwards: Rhys Carre, Wyn Jones, Gareth Thomas, Dewi Lake, Ken Owens (Captain), Bradley Roberts, Leon Brown, Tomas Francis, Dillon Lewis, Adam, Rhys Davies, Dafydd Jenkins, Alun Wyn Jones, Teddy Williams, Taulupe, Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Justin Tipuric, Christ Tshiunza, Aaron Wainwright
Backs: Kieran Hardy, Rhys Webb, Williams, Dan Biggar, Rhys Patchell, Owen Williams, Mason Grady, Joe Hawkins, George North, Nick Tompkins, Keiran Williams, Josh Adams, Alex Cuthbert Rio Dyer Leigh Halfpenny Liam Williams
Written by Philip Bendon
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