Rugby: Confident Gatland backing his Wales veterans

Owen Farrell will be the only Lions player in the England team to face a much-capped Wales side. Photo / AP
Owen Farrell will be the only Lions player in the England team to face a much-capped Wales side. Photo / AP

There was no mistaking the street-fighter's relish in the voice of Wales head coach Warren Gatland as he questioned whether England would be worldly-wise enough to win Monday's all-important Six Nations Championship match at Twickenham.

Gatland was able to name 12 Lions in his starting XV yesterday, an array of proven talent to set against an expected England line-up that will have only one test Lion, first five-eighth Owen Farrell.

Even though England have made significant progress, they are callow and inexperienced. Gatland believes that will be a factor, as it was last season when England went down to a record 30-3 defeat at the Millennium Stadium.

"All the talk is that the [England] boys have turned into men, that they have learnt some pretty harsh lessons from last year, that they have grown up," Gatland said with trademark deadpan emphasis. "Time will tell, won't it? We'll see on Sunday."

There was another singular part of the Gatland perspective on Monday's events - that Wales can strike a blow by winning at Twickenham, laying down a marker for their meeting with England in their World Cup pool match in 18 months.

"It is a big game psychologically for both teams because we have to go there next year as well and that is going to be even bigger than this Sunday," Gatland said, mindful that with Australia also in England's group and only two to qualify for the knockout stages, any advantage gained now may be important then.

"If we can win that will be four in a row [against England - something Wales have not done since the 1970s], and if we then win the Six Nations, you start to have a few doubts."

At a stroke, the stakes for Monday's encounter have been raised. Gatland has proved a master of the big moment, whether with the Lions last summer, or Wales in securing two Grand Slams as well as last year's title, whereas England under Stuart Lancaster have yet to see a tangible return on their promise.

Both teams are very much in the hunt for Six Nations silverware this season, tied with Ireland and France on two victories apiece.

Gatland knows the value of having proven warriors in his task force. He is also a man who trusts certain players, or a certain type of player, and that is why he had no hesitation in summoning outside centre Jonathan Davies to the cause even though the Lions test player has not started a match since injuring pectoral muscles against South Africa on November 9.

Davies has had only 105 minutes of rugby since November, not much more than England's Manu Tuilagi, a player Gatland singled out yesterday as one of the few in the England set-up with "X factor".

Lancaster has said he thinks an immediate return for Tuilagi would be too big a step up. But Gatland has gone for broke with Davies because he knows the calibre of the man he preferred to Brian O'Driscoll for the third Lions test against Australia.

"It wasn't difficult to make the call as Jonathan has been really, really sharp in training. It's just that he has not had a lot of rugby," said Gatland.

He has also recalled lock Alun-Wyn Jones, who has recovered from the foot infection that caused him to pull out just before kick-off against France a fortnight ago.

Davies himself agreed that he had been "climbing up walls", looking for the chance to get back on to the pitch.

Even though Wales were listless against Italy and dreadful in defeat against Ireland, they raised themselves for a rousing performance against France, stung by barbs from Gatland. Twickenham holds no terrors for Gatland, who has won there many times with Wasps as well as Wales.


Six Nations

Ireland v Italy
Dublin, 3.20am tomorrow

Scotland v France
Murrayfield, 5.50am tomorrow

England v Wales
Twickenham, 3.50am Monday

- Daily Telegraph UK

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