Warren Gatland’s decision to drop Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips to the bench for Friday’s crunch clash with France was absolutely the right one, even if his reasoning seems a little puzzling.
Gatland says he thought the Racing Metro star had been a little too “confrontational” during his side’s defeat to Ireland in Dublin a fortnight ago. Phillips was yellow carded at the Aviva Stadium but if that was the first time the Kiwi thought his No9 had overstepped the mark, then someone should check his eyesight.
Indeed, Gatland favoured Phillips in the early years of his Wales reign precisely because of his physicality. His formative years were spent playing as a flanker and his ability and willingness to take the game to the opposition has, in many ways, epitomised the ‘Warrenball’ that has been played under Gatland.
Like Wales, Phillips has been abrasive, confrontational and direct yet ultimately very, very skilled and effective and the aggressive way in which he plays rugby has at times spilled over off the field.
He was attacked outside a Cardiff nightclub in 2008, put his 2011 World Cup participation in jeopardy with an incident at a fast food restaurant and even after moving to France has seen controversy follow not far behind as he was released by Bayonne after turning up to an analysis session worse for wear.
Coming on the eve of last autumn’s internationals, his sacking in the south of France raised the question of whether Wales could cope without him.
In the four months since the answer has been a resounding yes.
It is one thing to indulge a player when he is playing well but when he is out of form behavioural problems become an unwanted nuisance, and in truth, Phillips has not been at his best for at least a year now.
Never the quickest at the breakdown, his delivery from the base of scrums and mauls has become so pedestrian that he has managed to incorporate a trademark short grab as he surveys his options.
The 31-year-old’s arrogance remains intact but that ultimately has proven to be his downfall.
The way he acted against Ireland was distasteful and the childish nature in which he goaded One Direction singer Niall Horan after the game was just boorish.
Moreover, Rhys Webb deserves his chance to start against the French.
It was his rise to prominence at the Ospreys that edged Phillips out the door at the Liberty Stadium and on to France, and the 25-year-old is a man in form.
Released to his region last weekend he warmed up for Les Bleus with a try in a club record 75-7 rout against Benetton Treviso.
This is not it for Phillips – he has been dropped by Gatland before – but it could well be the beginning of the end for Wales’ most-capped scrum-half.
Burgess has character to succeed
Sam Burgess confirmed his long awaited switch from rugby league to Bath, and potentially England, this week and if anyone is going to make a success of the move it is him.
Burgess’ signing was greeted with fervour by England fans, many of whom have already got him in their World Cup squads.
But for every Jason Robinson or Sonny Bill Williams who have lit up both codes, there is a player who failed to live up to expectations.
Burgess need only look at his future team-mate in the south-west of England, Kyle Eastmond, to see how hard it can be to impose yourself in another code.
However, Burgess brings with him an amazing amount of potential. He has the size, strength and fleet of foot to become a star in his new surroundings.
Perhaps more importantly the 25-year-old has also proved he has character in abundance on and off the field.
When he made his professional debut for the Bradford Bulls, at 17, he was caring for his terminally ill father Mark. When his dad passed away, aged just 45, Burgess did not crumble. Instead he relocated to Australia with South Sydney, taking his whole family – he now plays for the NRL club alongside his three brothers.
If he approaches his new challenge with anywhere near the same dedication, Stuart Lancaster better clear a space in that World Cup squad.
Stuart Lancaster admitted England’s 20-0 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield should have been more comfortable.
Tries from Mike Brown and Luther Burrell helped dispatch feeble opposition and thrust England back into Six Nations title contention.
Lancaster was pleased with a highly-effective performance that kept Scotland pointless for the first time since 1978, but accepted that more tries should have been scored.
“We were pleased with a lot of aspects, but are frustrated that we didn’t convert more of our opportunities because we dominated the second half,” the head coach said. “There were chances there that we didn’t take and we definitely have regrets over the points we left out there.
“We played some really good stuff in difficult conditions. Scotland had to defend desperately.”
The centre partnership of Billy Twelvetrees and Burrell impressed for a second weekend in succession and Lancaster was delighted by their contribution.
“The work that (coaches) Andy Farrell and Mike Catt have done with Luther and Billy is really paying off,” Lancaster said. “The timing and number of options going into the line were excellent and Luther’s try was a good case in point.
“They’re going well as a partnership, especially given that they’ve only trained together for two weeks and have played twice."
For Scotland, it was another day to forget. Their guests enjoyed 65 per cent of the second-half possession and it was little surprise England were able to turn down many of the 16 penalties they won in favour of chasing an extra try.
Interim head coach Scott Johnson took some consolation from the fact that just two touchdowns were conceded, but the Australian could not hide from his side’s failings.
Johnson said: “It was extremely frustrating. I’ve got a sore neck from looking down one end of the field for the entire second half.
“We wanted to turn them a little bit. We didn’t want to let them have too many line-outs in our half. As it turned out they had 16 in our 22. It didn’t work out.”
Ireland’s crushing 26-3 victory over Wales builds confidence and raises hope of a Six Nations title challenge, according to boss Joe Schmidt.
Wales were comprehensively out-played from the first whistle by their inspired hosts, who led 13-0 at half-time courtesy of flanker Chris Henry’s first international try and eight points from the boot of Jonathan Sexton.
Leigh Halfpenny kicked a penalty for Wales after the restart but a try from Paddy Jackson and five more points from the boot of Sexton sealed a comfortable victory.
There was the downside of lock Dan Tuohy suffering a suspected broken arm, while Wales centre Scott Williams left the Aviva Stadium with his arm in a sling after suffering a shoulder injury following what was an intensely physical contest.
Schmidt’s ferocious side were better than Wales at the breakdown, scrum and line-out, and they will now chase the Triple Crown against England at Twickenham on February 22.
Former schoolteacher Schmidt said Ireland cannot target the title outright just yet, but conceded his side will go to England brimming with confidence.
“I’m not going to think too far ahead,” said Schmidt. “But it’s certainly a gathering of confidence for us. The big, powerful team Wales brought today were always going to be tough opponents.
“They never quite got into the game really, they were perhaps not entirely match-fit some of them so in that respect I would suggest we were fortunate in some areas, and definitely benefited from that.
“We’ll get together again after a couple of days, review what we’ve done, take stock and work out how we can keep getting better. Then we’ll plot some sort of course forward going to Twickenham.
“That’s a massive game for us now; I think they were very unlucky against France and are an extremely powerful side.”
Former Gloucester lock Tuohy replaced captain O’Connell just before the hour, only to suffer almost immediate injury.
Lamenting his loss, Schmidt said: “I think Dan has fractured his forearm, and he will see a specialist.
“We will have more news on that next week but it’s almost certainly a fracture. It was really unfortunate for Dan, he played well last week. We had a lot of confidence putting him on, and it was really his first action that it happened so we feel for him and we’re really disappointed for Dan.”
Wales must forego all thoughts of a record-breaking third consecutive title after one of the worst defeats in coach Warren Gatland’s coaching tenure.
“It’s tough for us but I think it’sone step at a time: and the first step is to improve on what we’ve done here,” said Gatland. “We won’t be thinking in terms of retaining the Six Nations, we’ll be thinking about improving for our next game against France.”
Admitting Wales could have been caught out by Ireland’s dogged and direct gameplan, Gatland lambasted his side for conceding 17 penalties.
“Possibly there was surprise, I think it was effective,” said Gatland of Ireland’s brutal approach. “I can’t remember any occasion when they moved the ball through the backline to go at us.
“They dominated us up front and caused us a lot of problems.
“It’s just going back and having a look at those penalties we’ve given away, where we can improve.
“We have a target of 10 or less, so to give 17 away from our point of view was simply unacceptable.”
Wales skipper Sam Warburton had not given up hope of still retaining the Six Nations title despite the crushing Dublin defeat.
“We were definitely outplayed today – the best team won,” he said. “We’ve still got three games left, we won the championship last time with four wins and that’s still achievable this year.
"It’ll be a real test of character when we’ve got to bounce back against France in two weeks’ time.”