After shockwaves off the pitch, Wales will seek to make a shock on it during the Six Nations as Warren Gatland’s side prepare for a huge clash with world No 1 side Ireland
- It’s been a disastrous two weeks for Welsh rugby due to recent controversies
- There have been shocking allegations of sexism and misogyny in the country
- Warren Gatland’s side will hope to put their off-field issues aside in Six Nations
An unprecedented off-field storm has engulfed Welsh rugby in the last 10 days.
Shocking allegations of sexism and misogyny have rocked the game. Chief executive Steve Phillips resigned as the crisis escalated.
WRU bigwigs faced questions from Welsh Assembly members over the workplace culture at the organisation. Wales’ players were also quizzed.
Then, to top off the WRU’s week from hell, their banning of Tom Jones’ classic Delilah from being sung by the choir at Principality Stadium saw them hit the headlines for the wrong reasons again.
Frankly, it has been a disastrous two weeks. Now, a different sort of problem is on the horizon as world No 1 side Ireland arrive in Cardiff today for a mouth-watering start to the Six Nations.
Warren Gatland will hope to put Wales’ turbulent two weeks behind them for the Six Nations
Wales captain Ken Owens said yesterday: ‘It’s disappointing what has come out of the past fortnight. I’d be lying if I said we hadn’t been talking about it within the squad. But we are in our own bubble and the only thing we can do is concentrate on the rugby. At the end of the day, that’s what we are here to do.’
An external taskforce has been appointed to look into the historic cases of sexism and misogyny at the WRU after Nigel Walker — Phillips’ replacement as interim chief executive — and chairman Ieuan Evans admitted a blind eye had been turned to such problems at the governing body in the past.
WHERE WALES VS IRELAND WILL BE WON AND LOST
Justin Tipuric v Josh van der Flier
Wales were blown away in Dublin last year because they could not slow down Ireland’s ball. The back-row battle will be huge. Wales have to match the world’s No 1 side there to have a chance. Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau against Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris will be titanic. Van der Flier is fearsome at the breakdown. His fellow No 7 Tipuric has been playing supreme rugby for the Ospreys.
Dan Biggar v Johnny Sexton
These two know each other so well. In his last Six Nations before retirement, Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, 37, is still excelling. Wales fly-half Dan Biggar missed the autumn campaign due to injury but has swapped Northampton for Toulon and remains a key figure for Warren Gatland. Biggar will be on Welsh kicking duties after the withdrawal of the injured Leigh Halfpenny.
Joe Hawkins v Stuart McCloskey
Ireland powerhouse Stuart McCloskey continues to fill the boots of the injured Robbie Henshaw with Bundee Aki on the bench. The Ulster centre is a fearsome carrier and poses a threat to Welsh rookie Joe Hawkins. Just 20, Hawkins wins only his second cap today after making his debut against Australia last autumn. The Ospreys back has earned praise from coach Gatland and has a good all-round game.
Centre George North added: ‘Some really important issues have been raised. We will have to leave that to Ieuan and Nigel and the taskforce to deal with so we don’t have anything else like this happen again in the WRU.
‘The issues raised are important to us as players and as a union. In terms of focus, we’ve got the world’s No 1 team coming into our back garden. If that doesn’t get us focused, I’m not sure what will.’
The players have spoken impressively when faced with a barrage of questions they would rather not be dealing with and North is right to acknowledge the need for focus.
Ireland rightly enter the 2023 Six Nations as the side atop World Rugby’s global rankings. Their performances and results last year were impressive and included a series win in New Zealand.
Wales, by contrast, had an awful 2022. They won just three times from 12 games, costing former head coach Wayne Pivac his job. It led to Warren Gatland’s return.
With Gatland in charge for a second time, there is a belief back in this Wales side that was lacking at the end of last year. There is no greater motivator than Gatland.
North said: ‘We try and let Gats deal with all the other stuff. He’s very good at doing that and allowing us to focus on training. Experience is key in these camps, especially in the Six Nations. You are into it very quickly and it happens thick and fast. I guess we know how to win a game.
‘He set the tone early on. It’s been direct and obvious what he wants to do. It’s been a tough prep week. We know what the task is.’
North was one of Gatland’s most trusted lieutenants in his first, trophy-laden spell as Wales coach and he is keeping the faith with his old guard, for now at least.
Gatland this week acknowledged the value of players like North and Owens who have been there and done it in the Six Nations.
Even after the late withdrawal of full-back Leigh Halfpenny, Gatland’s starting side for Ireland contains a mammoth 936 Welsh caps.
George North insisted that Wales feel fully ‘focused’ on their clash with World No. 1 side Ireland
Owens, who leads Wales for the first time on Saturday, said: ‘We can’t get away from the fact Ireland are No 1 in the world and are probably Six Nations favourites.
‘We have chopped and changed with Gats coming back in and new coaches and players coming in. We have a lot of experience out there. The pressure is off us externally but internally we put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we know our ability as a squad.’
Wales have plenty of knowhow and a sprinkling of youthful exuberance. Jac Morgan will look to continue his impressive development on the flank. Joe Hawkins, only 20, will win just his second cap in midfield alongside North.
Gatland and Wales will be without veteran full-back Leigh Halfpenny for the Ireland clash
Wales will have to be close to faultless to upset this imperious Ireland team. And yet, there is belief in Wales that they can cause a shock. Ireland losing key figure and tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong to injury is a big blow to Andy Farrell’s men. Wales will look to target Ireland at the scrum.
They will have to dominate up front and compete hard at the breakdown. Wales were blown away when these teams met in Dublin last year because they failed to slow down Ireland’s ball.
If they can do that, they have a chance of ending what Gatland has called a ‘free hit’ for his team with victory. All the pressure to deliver is on Ireland.
Welsh rugby needs a win this weekend for all manner of reasons. A victory would not cure all its ills, but it would nonetheless be warmly welcomed. The return of Gatland could yet lead to a shock start to the tournament.
WALES VS IRELAND LINE-UPS
Wales: L Williams; Adams, North, Hawkins, Dyer; Biggar, T Williams; Thomas, Owens (capt), Francis; Beard, Jones; Morgan, Faletau, Tipuric.
Ireland: Keenan; Hansen, Ringrose, McCloskey, Lowe; Sexton (capt), Gibson-Park; Porter, Sheehan, Bealham; Beirne, Ryan; O’Mahony, Doris, Van der Flier.
Kick-off: 2.15pm, Principality Stadium.
TV: LIVE BBC One.
Referee: Karl Dickson (Eng)
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