Rugby: Gatland puts pressure on players to fight for international careers

By Tom Cary

Gethin Jenkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Gethin Jenkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Wales prop Gethin Jenkins has acknowledged that a number of senior players will be fighting for their international careers in today's mouthwatering Six Nations clash against France at the Millennium Stadium.

Warren Gatland, Wales' head coach, warned that any below-par performance from his players "could be the last" they made for their country. And Jenkins, who has won more than 100 caps in an international career stretching back to 2002, admitted every player in the squad was feeling the pressure a year out from the World Cup.

"The senior boys are probably the ones under the most pressure," the 33-year-old said. "There are young players coming through snapping at your heels and you've got to perform week in, week out. We all know we need to do better.

"We [the senior players] are the ones leading the team, we are the ones who drive the standards, who drive training, and when things go wrong the pressure comes on to us because we are the ones leading it. You wouldn't have it any other way.

That's what you want to have on your shoulders."

This is a match that did not need any extra seasoning. With France one of only two teams still unbeaten in the tournament and Wales looking to defend both their title and their honour following the 26-3 drubbing in Ireland, there was already plenty riding on it. Gatland's ultimatum was the equivalent of adding curry powder to a vindaloo. The spiky New Zealander's decision to drop Mike Phillips and promote Rhys Webb showed he meant business.

Gatland even cited the "watershed" defeat in Ireland in 2010 as a precedent. "We brought a lot of youngsters in after it and the focus was on building for the World Cup," he noted.

Jenkins' front-row companions Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard - stalwarts for years - will have taken note. Youngsters such as Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Rhys Priestland, yet to hit the heights against Italy and Ireland, will also be desperate for a big performance against the French.

Even Leigh Halfpenny, the hero of last summer's Lions tour, has not been exempt from criticism. "You know as a player if you're not playing well that there will be consequences," Alex Cuthbert, the wing, said. "We all know international rugby is quite ruthless."

The question is whether the pressure of the occasion, the cauldron of noise under the closed roof in Cardiff, will help or hinder against an unpredictable France team.

There are valid concerns about this Wales side. It is not just that they did not match Ireland's intensity in Dublin. The front row does not look the dominant force of old. Questions persist about coping with driving mauls, about where Warburton is best deployed, about Priestland at first five-eighth and George North at centre. Most of all, about Gatland's philosophy of packing his team with big players and playing a physical, direct game.

It has been good enough to win them successive championships and Wales have been at pains to point out in the build-up that they have not become a bad side overnight. If they win today, and England beat Ireland at Twickenham tomorrow, the championship is wide open again.

It will be a key test against a France side boasting incredible talent but who are nowhere near the finished article. Expect fireworks up front while in the backs Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud against Jamie Roberts and North should be worth the admission price alone.

Jenkins said he was confident that Wales' experience of performing in the face of adversity would win through. "We are at home, there will be a big atmosphere and we need to show what we are about. We are still in the tournament, and we have still got to aim for four out of five wins."

Wales v France: Millennium Stadium, 8:50am today

- Daily Telegraph UK

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