Warren Gatland has been hailed as “a fantastic coach” as he prepares to re-enter the RBS 6 Nations arena in pursuit of an unprecedented title hat-trick.
Gatland is back at the helm of reigning Six Nations champions Wales after missing last season’s tournament while he concentrated on Lions business.
Among all the enviable star quality at Wales’ disposal — match-winners like Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Alex Cuthbert — Gatland’s influence could prove the most significant on a Six Nations campaign that starts this weekend against Millennium Stadium visitors Italy.
Even in his absence, Wales won the 2013 showpiece, recovering from an opening day loss at home to Ireland by reeling off four successive victories. The target now is to achieve a ground-breaking trophy treble to confirm Wales as Europe’s dominant force 18 months out from World Cup 2015.
“Warren is an honest man with the players,” said Wales centre Jamie Roberts, who has won all his 53 caps in a Gatland coaching reign beginning in 2008.
“He will tell you if you have played well and if you have played terribly. That is consistent throughout, whether it be conditioning, skills, matches, post-match analysis.
“He brings out the best in everyone. Having him for another four or five years (Gatland agreed a long-term contract extension) ensures the machine and pathway keep developing.
“He is not afraid to give young players a chance, as he showed before the last World Cup with Toby (Faletau) and Sam (Warburton), and I sure he will do the same in the next 12 months and build towards the future.
“It is great news he is staying because he is a fantastic coach.”
Italy arrive today plagued by injuries, with a fly-half, two wings and an outside centre numbering just seven caps between them.
The Azzurri do boast experience up-front though led by Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Marco Bortolami.
WALES: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Scarlets), J Roberts (Racing Metro), G North (Northampton); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Racing Metro); P James (Bath), R Hibbard (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Perpignan), A-W Jones (Ospreys, capt), D Lydiate (Racing Metro), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Dragons).
ITALY: L McLean (Treviso); A Esposito (Treviso), M Campagnaro (Treviso), A Sgarbi (Treviso), L Sarto (Treviso); T Allan (Perpignan), E Gori (Treviso); M Rizzo (Treviso), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Toulon), Q Geldenhuys (Zebre), M Bortolami (Zebre), A Zanni (Treviso), M Bergamasco (Zebre), S Parisse (Stade Francais, capt).
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland).
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