Gatland wants focus on rugby as Wales meets top-ranked Irish

February 2, 2023 GMT
FILE - Wales coach Warren Gatland, walks on the field prior to the Rugby World Cup bronze final game at Tokyo Stadium between New Zealand and Wales in Tokyo, Japan, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. The 2023 Six Nations starts on Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File)
FILE - Wales coach Warren Gatland, walks on the field prior to the Rugby World Cup bronze final game at Tokyo Stadium between New Zealand and Wales in Tokyo, Japan, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. The 2023 Six Nations starts on Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File)

For Wales rugby coach Warren Gatland, the Six Nations game against Ireland on Saturday cannot come soon enough.

And that’s not just because it marks the start of the New Zealander’s second spell in charge of the national team.

It also means, for many, the focus of Welsh rugby turns to exactly that — rugby.

“Last week, there was only one topic of discussion and that was understandable,” Gatland said, referring to the scandal engulfing the Welsh Rugby Union following allegations of sexism, bullying and racism made in a scathing TV documentary.

“This week, the message to the players is we have a test match to focus on. Rugby has been the only talking point and the players have been great in terms of that. It has been a bit of a challenge, but our whole focus is on Saturday.”

After all, that’s what he was hired — again — for. To ignite the energy and spark in a Welsh team that appeared to be drifting under his predecessor, Wayne Pivac, less than a year out from the Rugby World Cup in France. Heck, Wales lost to Georgia in November.

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With Gatland back, excitement levels have been raised. Belief is back. That’s what happens when you bring in one of the world’s best coaches — perhaps the best of this generation.

“I often get asked about the Welsh and what they are like,” he said. “They are very knowledgeable about the game, passionate and opinionated. And I love that.

“The emotion is all about playing in an incredible stadium, with a passionate crowd and the buzz that you get from that. There is a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation, a lot of scrutiny — that comes with the role — but there is nothing better than playing in a full stadium with the intensity that is required.”

Watch out, Ireland. A red tide is coming your way.

Then again, this is an Irish team coming off a series win in New Zealand and a clean sweep of autumn victories over South Africa, Fiji and Australia. This is the world’s top-ranked nation, which — whisper it — might just be ready for a tilt at a first World Cup title.

Indeed, for Ireland coach Andy Farrell, savoring the experience of playing in the white-hot atmosphere of the Principality Stadium is important for his players in the bigger picture.

He’s agreed, even though the weather forecast is dry, to close the stadium roof. That guarantees a wall of noise visitors often struggle with, but Farrell wants his players to bank the experience.

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“We’ve been there before when it’s closed and there’s no atmosphere like it. It’s fantastic. It can only be good for us,” Farrell said. “We want . . . to sample the atmosphere and keep progressing on our journey.”

Understandably, Gatland has retained veterans he chided Pivac for not retiring, so there’s new skipper Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones in his 17th Six Nations, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar and George North. Leigh Halfpenny was starting until he had a back spasm on Thursday. Liam Williams has come in at fullback despite limited training and match time.

“I would love (Jones) to make the decision when he calls time but he is well aware of the needs of the team at the moment,” Gatland said.

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Farrell dropped tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, who wasn’t fully recovered from a calf issue and was being saved for the France clash next week. Australia-born Finlay Bealham will make his first Six Nations start at age 31.

His and captain Jonathan Sexton’s inclusion were the only changes to the side which beat Australia 13-10 in Ireland’s last autumn test.

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Lineups:

Wales: Liam Williams, Josh Adams, George North, Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Jac Morgan, Alun Wyn Jones. Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens (captain), Gareth Thomas. Reserves: Scott Baldwin, Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Rhys Webb, Owen Williams, Alex Cuthbert.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Finlay Bealham, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O’Toole, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Bundee Aki.

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