Wales boss Warren Gatland says he will not be “going on bended knees” to celebrated prop Adam Jones following his retirement from Test rugby.
– #360Rugby: First Six Nations setback for Schmidt
Jones, who has won 95 Wales caps and played in five Tests for the British and Irish Lions, made his surprise announcement earlier this season.
Wales are without current first-choice props Gethin Jenkins and Samson Lee through injury for their final Six Nations game against Italy in Rome on Saturday, while experienced Bath loosehead Paul James is also injured.
Rob Evans and Aaron Jarvis will start in Rome for the only changes to the XV from last weekend’s 23-16 victory over Ireland, with Rhys Gill and Scott Andrews providing prop cover on the bench, while uncapped Exeter tighthead Tomas Francis is also part of Wales’ Six Nations squad.
Many pundits, though, believe 34-year-old Jones could still do a job for Wales, especially in a World Cup year.
“I was surprised at the timing of his (retirement) announcement,” Gatland said. “He was not out of our thoughts.
“We had played a little bit of phone tag, leaving messages and going backwards and forwards.
"If he has changed his mind and wants to get on the phone and say I made a rash decision, retired too early and want to be part of the World Cup squad, that is a different conversation.
“At the moment, I will not be going on bended knees ringing him saying ‘please come back we really desperately need you’. It is about dealing with the other players.”
Gatland has awarded call-ups on the bench to hooker Ken Owens, props Rhys Gill and Scott Andrews and scrum-half Gareth Davies, with Mike Phillips missing out.
Owens features among the substitutes instead of hooker Richard Hibbard, who had been following return-to-play protocols after taking a blow to his head during the Ireland game.
Saracens forward Gill, meanwhile, gains a match-day place after only joining the squad for training on Monday, while Davies – a livewire operator and consistent try-scorer for the Scarlets – gets his chance instead of the hugely-experienced Phillips.
In terms of the starting line-up, it will be Evans’ full Wales debut after he went on as a replacement for Jenkins at half-time last Saturday, with Jarvis continuing instead of Lee.
Wales will head to the Stadio Olimpico lying third in the Six Nations table behind England and Ireland on points difference.
A comprehensive win over Italy, though, would turn up the heat on their title rivals, with Ireland tackling Scotland at Murrayfield next Saturday, followed by England hosting France.
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Stuart Lancaster is refusing to “dream” of seeing his England team crowned Six Nations champions for the first time on Saturday night.
The Red Rose have been installed as favourites to replace Ireland as champions on a climatic final round that will conclude with France visiting Twickenham, yet they could finish as low as fourth in the table. Ireland and Wales are also in the hunt with the staggered kick-offs – starting in Rome at 16:30 and concluding when England take the field at 21:00 (UAE time).
For a third successive year the title is set to be decided by points difference with England’s cushion over the Irish of plus four placing them in pole position, although they arguably have the toughest fixture.
Lancaster is desperate to lift the first piece of major silverware of his reign but having finished runnersup for the last three years, the head coach is acutely aware of how best laid plans can be foiled.
“To win at Twickenham would mean a huge amount – for the players and the fans,” he said. “I know how much hard work people have put in and also how much it hurt to come second for three years in a row. But you can’t start thinking about things like that until you get the detail of the game right.
“We’ve got a huge challenge coming our way from France. They’re a high quality team. As they showed last year when they played Ireland, they played right through for the full 80 in that last game even though they couldn’t win the Championship. It could still be the case they have something to play for, so we won’t start dreaming yet.”
The schedule has presented England with the significant advantage of knowing exactly what their target will be against France when the last game of the Six Nations starts.
Lancaster will inform his players of the results of Wales’ clash with Italy and Ireland’s match against Scotland, but insists their over-riding ambition must be to secure victory rather than chase a score.
“Clearly we’ll know the outcome before we start,” he said. “But the critical thing is to ensure the players are all completely focused on their own preparations.”
On an enthralling weekend of Six Nations rugby, Wales robbed Ireland of their Grand Slam hopes with electric start in Cardiff, while England snatched the advantage in terms of the Championship with a good win over Scotland. Italy and France did not exactly set pulses racing on Sunday, but there was still plenty to glean from the action…
Ben Youngs cementing his England place ahead of the World Cup
It is not too long ago that Ben Youngs was on the outside looking in, in terms of England. However, since being brought back in to replace Danny Care at the end of the autumn internationals, he has taken his chance with both hands.
Youngs was a pivotal figure in his country’s impressive win in Cardiff on the first Friday of the tournament, and on Saturday was named man of the match as England moved top of the standings with victory over Scotland.
He may not possess the all-action, blockbuster game of a scrum-half like Care but his constant probing and excellent distribution skills have kept England on the front foot for large parts of this season’s tournament.
Dublin, of course, was one aberration for everyone in a white shirt, but if Stuart Lancaster picked a team for England’s World Cup opener against Fiji today, then Youngs would surely be included.
But as Care could tell his rival, things can change extremely quickly where England is concerned.
Saturday’s performance was far from perfect, and while Lancaster’s side created numerous opportunities, they should have left Twickenham with more than three tries.
That would have given them an even bigger cushion heading into the final weekend, where they may well need to be more clinical against France.
— Anthony Allen (@anthonyallen3) March 14, 2015
Wales should be doing everything they can to keep Shaun Edwards
Although the Six Nations statisticians later reduced Wales’ tackle count from a barely believable 289 to a still mightily impressive 250, their defeat of Ireland still owed everything to a water-tight defence.
The architect of that performance was of course their defence coach since 2008, Shaun Edwards. However, as the former Wasps coach sauntered off into the Cardiff night on Saturday, he revealed to the gathered media that talks over a new contract – which runs out after the World Cup – had not yet begun.
The vacuum that has followed Wales Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis’ decision to step down in the autumn has left Warren Gatland’s coaching staff in limbo.
Gatland has already signed an extension until 2019, but similar deals have not been forthcoming for Edwards, Rob Howley et al.
Having just witnessed arguably his finest moment in his time with Wales, it would seem ludicrous that the WRU hierarchy would let Edwards walk away.
But they need to act quickly if they are to keep him. Since swapping league for union, Edwards has proven himself to be a high-class coach, and has a list of honours at club and international level longer than he is tall.
Whether his comments on Saturday night were designed to speed up negotiations only time will tell, but they will have pricked the ears of several European clubs – and no doubt England.
Shaun Edwards take a bow. Wales defending tough.
— MartinChariotsOffiah (@martinoffiah) March 14, 2015
Ireland need to discover a cutting edge to lift title
Wales rightly took all the plaudits for their defensive effort at a euphoric Millennium Stadium on Saturday evening, but Ireland undoubtedly have questions to answer.
Jonathan Sexton endured a rare afternoon to forget, the nadir of which came when he turned his back on a Jamie Heaslip pass in the second half.
But as an attacking unit as a whole the Irish simply did not turn up in the Welsh capital. While it is undoubtedly impressive that the hosts held out for a combined 45 phases in the opening half of the second period, questions must be asked of the men in green.
Ireland had 75 per cent of possession and 76 per cent of territory after half-time, yet they made only four clean breaks in the entire 80 minutes.
Up until now Joe Schmidt has been lauded for what he has achieved since taking over as coach, and rightly so. Impressive victories have been gained against Australia, England and South Africa.
All of those wins, though, have come via winning the tactical battle and doing enough to ensure the other team doesn’t have the possession and territory to score tries.
Ireland have only scored four tries in this year’s Six Nations, with one of those being the penalty score they were awarded in Cardiff and two more coming against Italy.
Starting next weekend’s fixtures behind England on points difference, they will need to rediscover their cutting edge if they are to finish the championship on top of the pile.
— jb (@jbcday) March 16, 2015
Cotter could ruin his friend Schmidt’s day
Roles have been reversed this year for Ireland, with the onus on them to put pressure on England, who lead the championship and play last on Saturday.
But while England were able to rack up 50+ points against Italy 12 months ago, Irish coach Schmidt will know Scotland will not lie down in Edinburgh.
Vern Cotter’s side may well find themselves rock bottom of the table, but going into battle with his former Clermont assistant, they have plenty to prove.
Defeat to Italy a fortnight ago was a shock for the men in blue, whose form in the autumn ensured they went into the tournament looking forward not behind.
They will not want to end the tournament with the wooden spoon, especially as they can rightly point to performances against France and Wales that merited more than they received.
Cotter has been working his side hard on the training pitch since their slip up against Italy, and they reacted well to falling behind early to England, leading at half-time at Twickenham.
The hosts did enough to secure the victory in the second half in west London, but Ireland will know they must secure the win at Murrayfield before they start worrying about points difference.
Four games down and no wins. Vern Cotter said after England game that Scotland are moving in the right direction. Are they?
— SCRUM Magazine (@SCRUMMAGAZINE) March 16, 2015
France must front up at Twickenham
The old adage that France always raise their game when playing England is something of a misnomer.
Of the nine meetings since the start of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Les Bleus have lost six and won just three.
Indeed their last victory at Twickenham came almost eight years ago, in August 2007.
However, for all their problems – and there have been a few this tournament – Les Bleus remain a potent threat, when the squad are together and they can be bothered.
Although they come into the clash in London on the back of an ugly 29-0 victory over Italy that saw the two sides share 37 handling errors, this is a squad that beat Australia as recently as November.
Philippe Saint-Andre can still call upon some serious quality, especially up front, with the likes of Nicolas Mas, Yoann Maestri and Thierry Dusautoir.
Unfortunately for the French that is exactly where England are strongest. But if they can get some kind of foothold at scrum time, and give Yoann Huget and Gael Fickou decent ball then the Red Rose will not have it all their own way.
I love watching rugby. Italy v France is tough on the eye…
— Will Greenwood (@WillGreenwood) March 15, 2015
The tone for a trying afternoon for Johnny Sexton was set by this huge hand-off from Jonathan Davies early in Ireland’s trip to Cardiff.
Davies had an excellent game for Wales, and the crowd were clearly delighted with his strength, if the roar on the video below is anything to go by.