All-Lions front row helps Wales coach take mind off lengthy list of injuries
For all the talk of injuries in the Wales camp, interim head coach Rob Howley is banking on the return of tighthead prop Adam Jones making a more telling impact on the Welsh RBS 6 Nations Championship campaign.
The casualty list in the Principality has been pored over for months following a disastrous autumn campaign which saw Wales lose all four Tests at the Millennium Stadium, including an upset defeat by Samoa. More upsetting, though, has been the loss of second rows Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones and Bradley Davies, lock/back row Ryan Jones, flanker Dan Lydiate, fly-half Rhys Priestland and centre Ashley Beck, to name just seven.
All of them miss today’s opener in Cardiff against Ireland but Howley, who takes charge in the absence of Lions coach Warren Gatland, is preferring to focus on the reunion of his all-Lions front row now Jones is fit again and the power of a unit that also features loosehead Gethin Jenkins and hooker Matthew Rees.
“Injuries are the nature of the game,” Howley said. “You draw from the experiences we had in the autumn, particularly in the front row with injuries. Now, with Adam Jones coming back into the fray, and Craig Mitchell... I think the scrum is going to be an important factor in this Six Nations and Adam Jones is one of the, if not the best, tighthead in world rugby, and we produced in Aaron Jarvis in the autumn, Craig Mitchell coming back in and Scott Andrews, we feel that at this moment in time strength in the front row is pretty important.
“We all saw that when France played Australia and they brought on a new front row after 50, 55 minutes. It can have an influence. It’s an area in which we believe we can have a positive impact on the game.”
Such riches must not be overlooked in comparison to Ireland’s current tighthead problems in the wake of the implosion at Twickenham last March when injury to Mike Ross forced loosehead Tom Court into the firing line with depressing results. Eleven months on and the picture is only slightly brighter with Munster’s Stephen Archer injured and Declan Kidney calling on Ulster’s Declan Fitzpatrick as bench cover for Ross following New Zealand-born Irishman Michael Bent’storrid evening with the Wolfhounds last Friday in Galway against England Saxons. Howley, though, is far too diplomatic to discuss Ireland’s perceived weaknesses.
“We’re just focusing on our game at this moment in time and what we need to put in place for the Ireland preparation. I think from what I’ve seen of Ireland playing against one of the most renowned scrummaging outfits in world rugby in Argentina, they didn’t do too bad. They will be more than equipped in that area.”
This will be the second year in a row that Wales and Ireland have been paired for the opening fixture of the championship and so fine were the margins in 2012 that it needed a controversial late yellow card in Dublin for Stephen Ferris and the subsequent penalty from Leigh Halfpenny to seal a third victory in the space of 12 months for Gatland’s team over the Irish. That victory for Wales, World Cup semi-finalists five months previously, gave them the momentum that led to the Grand Slam while Ireland endured a stuttering campaign, highlighting the importance of a winning start to the Six Nations.
“It’s important to every nation going into a Six Nations,” Howley said. “It was a focus for us last year on the back of Rugby World Cup. Questions were asked about us backing up our Rugby World Cup performances.
“We targeted that game in the Aviva in terms of momentum and confidence and self-belief. Actually being able to then win and look forward, I think it’s huge.
“Being at home [this year], we’ve got two home games, the first and the last, and then we’re away for three games on the bounce. So it’s a big game and the one thing in terms of our recent experiences against Ireland, it’s a mouth-watering prospect: we’re two sides who want to play rugby, ball in hand, and the talent which is on the field for both sides. I’m hugely looking forward to it.”
Howley has good reason to relish the opportunity of leading his country into the Six Nations. With Gatland on secondment to the Lions, the former Ireland coach will steer clear of his day job for the duration of the tournament as he observes the other three nations from which his squad to play Australia this summer will be selected.
Despite the former Wales scrum-half and captain having taken the helm on last summer’s tour Down Under and being nominally in charge for the first two Tests of the autumn before Gatland returned for the final two having recovered from the broken heels he suffered when falling from a ladder at his home, Howley will be solely in control for the first time.
That’s a situation he more than welcomes after what he described as a lack of clarity for players and coaches alike during the November Tests.
“During the autumn series, and I’ve spoken to Warren about this post-autumn, about compromising the two weeks I was in charge and the two weeks when Warren came in. Clarity from a players’ perspective is important and also in terms of the transparency with Warren as head coach of the Lions, he wants to go and watch other nations training and so he’s not going to be involved at all with us in training or selection. So the clarity between the coaching team and the players is very evident.
“It’s a challenge and I’m looking forward to it. I thoroughly enjoyed the Australian tour and that experience taught us about small margins and big consequences, and likewise the autumn series. So I’m just looking forward to making that whole, really.
“So it’s only clear, the clarity we have going forward into the Six Nations, that it’s with me.”
On his head, the need to stop a losing streak that now stretches to seven games, the worst run of defeats since Wales lost eight games in 2004/05. It is not just a good start Howley needs in Cardiff this weekend, something needs to end.
Picture: WORRIED FACES: Coaches Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley oversee Wales’s captain’s run at the Millennium Stadium yesterday. Picture: Inpho/Dan Sheridan
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