Rob Howley, Wales' interim head coach, took the rather bizarre decision to name his starting line-up for their game against Italy a week and a half in advance.
He has named an unchanged team, and is seeking some continuity after Wales got their first win in Paris since 2005, and also halted a losing slump that had seen them lose eight matches on the bounce. In this sense, it is an understandable, if slightly off-the-wall, decision.
The most encouraging thing, however, is that he has backed the players who are in form despite the return from injury of some of Wales' bigger names. The Welsh management - not just Howley - has been guilty in the past of selecting players on reputation rather than form, and that is a key reason that has been cited when assessing how they managed to slide so far in just a year.
So, in naming an unchanged lineup and ignoring the temptation to reinstate big names such as Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones, both of whom are returning from injuries, Howley has taken a bold step in the right direction. It is an even bolder call when you consider that Warburton is captain of the squad. Having your captain available but on the bench sends a strong message to those starting that they are in control of the shirt, and if they keep playing well that won't change.
Players like Warburton (and he is far from the only one) have been living off the reputation they garnered in the past, and selecting them over form players has certainly been one of the issues that contributed to Wales' downfall. They say form is temporary and class is permanent, but the international arena is not the place to be trying to find your form again if you've lost it. Nobody is saying that Warburton isn't a class player, but that is what club rugby is for.
It has to be said that Warburton has not been treated particularly well in all of this. He has been made a scapegoat and a symbol for a team that has been under-performing and living off past glories, none of which is his fault. This is partly down to the media, for lambasting his performances, but also the coaches for continuing to set him up for a fall, rather than allowing him to go and find some form at club level.
Hopefully, this drop to the bench will give him a bit of perspective. His replacement, Justin Tipuric, has been the form open-side flanker in Wales for some time now. It is easy to become complacent, and as a result stale, when you are consistently being selected ahead of someone who is playing better than you.
So while Howley's decision to name his team a week ahead of time is slightly strange, it could also be a masterstroke. It allows the players named in the team to relax and not have to worry about whether they will be dropped for whatever big name is coming back from injury. It means they have the time to gel together, learn all their moves and build an understanding amongst each other. And hopefully it will also give those guilty of living off former glories a kick up the backside.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rob Howley
- Sam Warburton