Warren Gatland says Wales’ focus will include drawing a line in the sand on off-field issues as they prepare for a Guinness Six Nations showdown with England. The latest instalment of one of rugby union’s fiercest rivalries was engulfed by a threat of Wales players taking strike action. That was averted late on Wednesday after compromises were found with Welsh rugby powerbrokers over issues like Wales’ 60-cap selection policy for players plying their trade outside the country and fixed-variable contracts.
Wales head coach Gatland delayed naming his team by 48 hours with the England game under serious threat of not going ahead. But with the green light given and Gatland having selected a side showing nine changes, including no places for British and Irish Lions trio George North, Dan Biggar and Liam Williams, Saturday cannot come soon enough.
“These are circumstances that have been brought on by ourselves, and we can only take responsibility for those things ourselves,” Gatland said, reflecting on events of the past week. “The focus needs to be purely on the next few days, training well, drawing a line in the sand with what has happened and then bringing out the passion, history and expectation that comes with an England-Wales fixture.
“I was asked by the players not to name the team on Tuesday, and that was about as much as protecting them as well. If the game did get called off with naming a 23, then all of a sudden those 23 players are in the spotlight and almost being accused of calling the game off. So it was as much about protecting the players in the squad until we had confirmation that the game was going ahead.”
Gatland had praise for Wales captain Ken Owens, who was a key voice for the players as matters were thrashed out behind closed doors. “There is no doubt that this week has taken a bit of a toll on him,” Gatland added. “He has done a fantastic job in terms of supporting and leading the players. I made a joke that he looked 10 years younger this morning – it was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.”
Cap centurions Biggar and North are replaced by Ospreys’ Owen Williams and 20-year-old Cardiff centre Mason Grady respectively, with Grady making his Test debut. Biggar drops to the bench, but North and Liam Williams miss out completely. Elsewhere, Gatland has handed full-back Leigh Halfpenny his 98th cap – but a first Wales start since he suffered a serious knee injury in July 2021 – while other players called up include wing Louis Rees-Zammit plus Lions forwards Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.
At 6ft 5in and more than 17 stones, Grady offers a similar physical presence to North and he has landed his Test chance after just 20 first-team appearances for Cardiff. “The message to them [North and Williams] is the same I gave to the squad on day one,” Gatland said.
“We will be looking at some of the players in this group who haven’t had a lot of rugby. We need to expose young players, but keep some experience around them. There is a lot of work for us to continue to do as a group to get better and the levels I know we can get to. We are not at those levels yet. There is potentially a little more pain to go through, but I am confident we will come through the other side.”
Wales are striving to avoid three successive defeats at the start of a Six Nations campaign for the first time since 2003, but they have beaten England five times out of the last seven meetings in Cardiff. Gatland added: “For both of us (Wales and England), this game is absolutely massive. If we win on Saturday, then we go away to Italy and France and we can finish the Six Nations on a real positive. For (England), a loss on Saturday and their last two games are France and Ireland, which are pretty challenging as well.”