Wales team: Five takeaways from ‘ruthless’ Warren Gatland’s ‘bold’ selection calls to face France in the Six Nations

Jared Wright
Wales head coach Warren Gatland, captain Dafydd Jenkins and centre George North.

Wales head coach Warren Gatland, captain Dafydd Jenkins and centre George North.

Warren Gatland has made a few surprising selection calls for the Six Nations clash with France at the Principality Stadium this weekend.

Wales are winless so far in the tournament, falling agonisingly close to Scotland (26-27) and England (16-14) before being soundly beaten 31-7 by Ireland.

Looking for a first win against an underwhelming French outfit, Gatland has made two changes in his forward pack, plus a positional switch, as well as a pair of changes in the starting backline.

Here are our takeaways from the matchday 23 that Gatland has picked for the crunch encounter.

Gatland shows his ruthlessness again

The experienced New Zealander is not shy about making bold selection calls, just ask Brian O’Driscoll, and he has shown his ruthlessness once again.

Gatland picked an incredibly young squad for this Six Nations but has backed experienced players in some of the key positions, notably in the centres. Nick Tompkins started all three fixtures, and George North partnered him in the latter two.

However, for the fourth match, he has opted to change tactics and has dropped Tompkins and North not just from the starting lineup but from the matchday 23 entirely, effectively reducing the cap tally in the starting team by a whopping 117 Tests.

Generally, it is a bold call to replace both of your starting centres for a big Test match, but it is made even bolder as Joe Roberts earns just his second cap ahead of North, who earned his 120th last time out.

There is a changing of the guard in the Wales Test set-up, and this is a clear indication of just that. However, considering how comfortable France have been in extended periods of possession, it is certainly a risky tactic to drop two key decision-makers in defence.

Deserved opportunities

In the same vein, Owen Watkin and Joe Roberts certainly deserve their opportunity and have been backed to shine as they combine in the centres for the first time.

The pair have been in solid form for Ospreys and the Scarlets this season and have clearly been applying the pressure on the head coach to earn their chance.

23-year-old Roberts is undoubtedly a bright talent and could have a long-term future in the centres for Wales. A fine outing up against France and possibly their world-class veteran Gael Fickou would do him the world of good.

“There are a few changes to the team this week as there are some players that deserve an opportunity,” Gatland said when announcing the squad and while Roberts and Watkin obviously fit in that category, Ryan Elias’ elevation from the bench to the starting XV seems more a second chance.

Elias started the opening game against Scotland, but with Wales’ lineout struggling in that fixture, winning just 55% of his lineout throws, he was dropped to the bench for the next two games.

But with Gatland upping the ante and naming three locks in his starting XV and the additional lineout jumper of Aaron Wainwright, Elias has been given another chance to shine and has been equipped with the tools to succeed.

His ability around the park is unquestionable, and perhaps that also influences Gatland’s thinking. He has been a reliable thrower in the past.

Learnings from the Italians

Garland and his coaching staff will have had a close look at Italy’s 13-13 stalemate with France in round three of the Championship as they devised their plan to topple Les Bleus.

“It’ll be a tough, physical challenge from France on Sunday particularly up front. We know they will start hard and it’s about us staying in the fight, having good line speed defensively and keeping our discipline. We’re looking for an 80 minute performance,” Gatland noted.

And his selections mirror his comments as he has beefed up his pack by including Will Rowlands in the starting lineup for the first time in 2024.

His inclusion in the second-row results in a shift to the blindside flank position for Dafydd Jenkins – more on that in a bit – and not only means that they can sure-up their lineout but adds another tackling machine into the back-five.

Rowlands, like Jenkins and Beard, often racks up a respectable tackling tally and is just the kind of player needed to do the tough nitty-gritty work in the dark places when fronting up against France. His recent experience playing in the Top 14 is just an added bonus.

But it also translates to the bench, with rookies Alex Mann and Mackenzie Martin covering the back-five roles and looking to add energy and fresh legs in the latter stages of the games.

Getting a good start to the match will be crucial for Wales, but staying in the fight is too, and with the starting pack Gatland has picked and its complementary bench, they certainly have a chance up front.

Dafydd Jenkins’ value

Dafydd Jenkins Wales RWC 2023 - Alamy.jpg

The new Wales captain has spent the majority of his senior playing career in the second row, slipping into the back row on occasion during games, but he will get his first Test start on the side of the scrum this weekend.

Blindside flankers in the mould of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Courtney Lawes or Jerome Kaino are in short supply on the international stage nowadays, which often leads to the more athletic locks filling the role, and in Jenkins Wales are doing just that.

The 21-year-old certainly has the athleticism and grunt to thrive in the role, and the ability to move him onto the side of the scrum will go a long way in negating the power and size of the French pack.

Disrupting France’s lineout will also be a crucial factor in any success Wales have, and with Jenkins, Wainwright, Rowlands and Beard as defensive jumper options, Gatland’s charges are well-stocked to do so.

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Faith in Cameron Winnett

Entering the Six Nations without the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Gareth Anscombe, Liam Williams, and Louis Rees-Zammit will have made many Wales fans nervous about the fullback position during the tournament.

However, those concerns have been comfortably put to bed after three standout performances from Cameron Winnett, who has produced shifts far beyond his three Test caps suggest.

Even in the heavy defeat to Ireland, Winnett still managed to be one of the standout performers and has been backed once again in what could be his most challenging Test to date.

While France haven’t hit the form that we saw pre-World Cup, they are still a difficult team for any full-back to come up against with their long-kicking game. Teams have found a way to combat it so far in Six Nations, but Winnett will need to keep his wits about him this weekend.

As mentioned above, Gatland has been ruthless in some of his selections but has shown faith in the young full-back and could have easily made a switch this week if he wished but at the same time the Wales boss has rewarded form and does so again in the 15 jumper.

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