Six Nations: Warren Gatland banking on pent-up Wales anger to topple England in Cardiff cauldron
Warren Gatland wants Wales to draw a line in the sand, turn this week’s strike threat on its head and vent all that anger on England.
After selecting a 6ft 5in, 17st rookie in midfield, the only marker that matters in Cardiff on Saturday is the gainline.
Mason Grady will become the first Wales centre to make his Test debut in a Six Nations match since 1992, with boss Gatland unusually hailing the unproven Cardiff powerhouse to high heaven. The raw 20-year-old will be on an advantage-line collision course with England’s battering ram, Ollie Lawrence.
At the end of a week of ultimate flux, suddenly something feels familiar. Wales’s threat of an unprecedented strike has been averted for now, just in time for all and sundry to flock to Cardiff.
Two days ago, captain Ken Owens called Wales the rugby world’s “laughing stock”. On Thursday, head coach Gatland was firing shots at England for wanting the stadium roof open. From industrial action to Hymns and Arias, how the Six Nations needed Wales’s players and Union back on the same song sheet.
An 11th-hour compromise averted the strike threat on Wednesday, with the Welsh Rugby Union finally pledging to finalise the four regions’ reduced playing budgets for next season. Months of uncertainty and recrimination have given way to a truce that allows the WRU to net £10million revenue from Saturday’s England clash.
The Stereophonics track As Long As We Beat The English has faced its biggest challenge this week. It turns out that Wales do care about more than just toppling their bitter rivals.
Steve Borthwick’s side will be in for an atmosphere like no other, with Cardiff’s cacophonous citadel doubtless emboldened to new heights of frenzy by a week to shake the sport’s foundations. Rugby revels in the rhythm of routine. To hear Gatland question England’s analytical reasons to have the Principality Stadium roof open was to be pacified in familiar pattern.
Such well-worn narrative would be unlikely to rile the unflappable England boss. England believe a closed roof can add a greasiness to the ball — and the visitors want to play to the elements.
Only time will tell whether this is a rebirth, or if Gatland and Wales have run out of ideas
The vagaries of the regulations mean both sides have to agree to play under a closed roof. Wales tend to want the roof shut to boost the already raucous crowd noise, so, effectively, the visitors get to make the choice.
Gatland’s second coming as Wales head coach is yet to get going. Hefty defeats by Ireland and Scotland have put Wales in danger of a worst Six Nations start since 2007.
The 59-year-old Kiwi has cut a chastened figure in the tournament so far, but a total of nine changes to the starting XV shows his bold side. Only time will tell whether this is a rebirth, or if Gatland and Wales have run out of ideas.
England are positively stable by comparison, a claim that could not be posited against any other opponent.
Borthwick still has England aiming to walk before they run, focusing fully on the basics. One change sees Anthony Watson relaunch his Test career with a first England start in 23 months.
Too many times England have wilted in the Principality Stadium’s white-hot atmosphere. On Saturday, the Cardiff cauldron will reveal whether England are yet a team built in Borthwick’s measured image.